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Army Spun Tale Around Ill-Fated Mission

In the end, one member of Tillman's platoon received formal administrative charges, four others -- including one officer -- were discharged from the Rangers but not from the Army, and two additional officers were reprimanded, Lt. Col. Bush said. He declined to release their names, citing Privacy Act restrictions.

Baker left the Rangers on an honorable discharge when his enlistment ended last spring, while others who were in his truck remain in the Army, said sources involved in the case.

Sen. John McCain said he would have liked to have known about officers' suspicions before he spoke publicly about Pat Tillman's death. (Pool Photo Gene Lower)

Steve Coll MSNBC Video: Post's Steve Coll on the investigation into Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan

_____Field of Battle_____
Interactive Graphic: View the sequence of events and a map of the terrain where Pat Tillman was killed.
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U.S. Army officials waited for weeks before informing Pat Tillman's family that he was accidentally killed by fellow Army rangers.
_____More From Series_____
In the Kill Zone: Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades (By Steve Coll, The Washington Post, December 5, 2004)
In the Kill Zone: Army Spun Tale Around Ill-Fated Mission (By Steve Coll, The Washington Post, December 6, 2004)

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Military commanders have occasionally leveled charges of involuntary manslaughter in high-profile friendly-fire cases, such as one in 2002 when Maj. Harry Schmidt, an Illinois National Guard pilot, mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan. But in that case and others like it, military prosecutors have found it difficult to make murder charges stick against soldiers making rapid decisions in combat.

And because there is no uniform, openly published military case law about when friendly-fire cases cross the line from accident to crime, commanders are free to interpret that line for themselves.

The list of cases in recent years where manslaughter charges have been brought is "almost arbitrary and capricious," said Charles Gittins, a former Marine who is Schmidt's defense lawyer. Gittins said that senior military officers tend to focus on low-ranking personnel rather than commanders. In Schmidt's case, he said, "every single general and colonel with the exception of Harry's immediate commander has been promoted since the accident." Schmidt, on the other hand, was ultimately fined and banned from flying Air Force jets.

Short of manslaughter, the most common charge leveled in fratricide is dereliction of duty, or what the military code calls "culpable inefficiency" in the performance of duty, according to military law specialists. This violation is defined in the Pentagon's official Manual for Courts-Martial as "inefficiency for which there is no reasonable or just excuse."

In judging whether this standard applies to a case such as Tillman's death, prosecutors are supposed to decide whether the accused person exercised "that degree of care which a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances."

Even if a soldier or officer is found guilty under this code, the punishments are limited to demotions, fines and minor discipline such as extra duty.

Records in the Tillman case do not make clear if Army commanders considered more serious punishments than this against any Rangers or officers, or, if so, why they were apparently rejected.

Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.

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