Marine Officer Cleared In Killing of Two Iraqis

By Tom Foreman Jr.
Associated Press
Friday, May 27, 2005

RALEIGH, N.C., May 26 -- The Marine Corps dropped murder charges Thursday against an officer accused of riddling two Iraqis with bullets and hanging a warning sign on their corpses as a grisly example to other suspected insurgents.

Autopsies conducted on the Iraqis' exhumed bodies backed 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano's assertion that he shot them in self-defense after the men disobeyed his instructions and made a menacing move toward him, Marine officials said.

"The initial findings of the autopsies did not support the allegation that 2nd Lieutenant Pantano committed premeditated murder," said 2nd Lt. Barry Edwards, a Marine spokesman. "Rather, the initial findings corroborated 2nd Lieutenant Pantano's version of the events."

The decision to drop the charges was made by Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The move ends the prosecution of Pantano, a former Wall Street trader who rejoined the Marines after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Down at the unit level, there was never a question about Ilario's conduct and whether or not he did the right thing," said Charles W. Gittins, Pantano's civilian lawyer. "It was up in the higher echelons. The people removed from combat situations needed to put more trust in their officers rather than assuming they're guilty."

The two Iraqis were killed during an April 2004 search outside a suspected terrorist hideout in Mahmudiyah, Iraq.

Prosecutors said Pantano, 33, intended to make an example of the men by shooting them 60 times and hanging a sign over their bodies -- "No better friend, no worse enemy," a Marine slogan. Pantano did not deny hanging the sign or shooting the men repeatedly.

Huck's decision was based in part on autopsies performed in the past few months. In the past, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service Marines did not feel secure enough to exhume bodies in Iraq.

Earlier this month, a Marine hearing officer recommended that the murder charges be dropped, saying that one witness's accusation that Pantano shot the men while they were kneeling with their backs to him was unsupported by other testimony or evidence.

Witnesses testified that the sergeant who was Pantano's main accuser was a weak Marine who was bitter about being removed by Pantano from a leadership role in the platoon. More than half a dozen Marines who served with Pantano in Iraq portrayed him as an able leader who remained cool in combat and was friendly toward Iraqis.

The hearing officer recommended Pantano face nonjudicial punishment for allegedly desecrating the bodies by reloading and repeatedly shooting them. But the commanding general decided Pantano should face no punishment for any of his actions.

"The best interests of 2nd Lt. Pantano and the government have been served by this process," the Marine Corps said in a statement.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company