FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The Army's murder case against a decorated platoon sergeant charged with shooting a Panamanian after a grenade attack during the U.S. military action there in December has torn the 82nd Airborne Division over the right to kill in certain combat circumstances.

Conflicting recommendations over whether to bring the case to trial were resolved earlier this month when the new commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, Lt. Gen. Gary E. Luck, decided to send 1st Sgt. Roberto E. Bryan, 43, before a court-martial as early as August on a charge of unpremeditated murder. His decision was announced after three subordinate officers, in internal Army memoranda, had strongly questioned the charges or recommended they be dismissed.

But the greatest conflict in the case is over what happened in the incident, and whether Bryan's shooting of the unidentified Panamanian last Dec. 23 was unlawful retribution against a surviving attacker, or a justified response by a quick-thinking sergeant who says he saw a dangerous move by an unsearched assailant who might be hiding another grenade.

A number of eyewitnesses have backed Bryan's account of the shooting, according to sources familiar with the 700-page record of a May evidentiary hearing conducted by the Army. The Army's case rests largely on the testimony of Lt. Brandon T. Thomas, who accused Bryan of shooting without provocation and of using excessive force by firing several three-shot bursts into the Panamanian.

Thomas declined to comment on his testimony.

Bryan remains on active duty here pending trial. During 19 years in the military, he has maintained an unblemished disciplinary record. After the U.S. invasion of Panama, Bryan's company commander, Capt. Jon Campbell, praised him as a natural leader and attested to Bryan's "absolute and uncompromising adherence to and enforcement of {military} standards."

Internal documents indicate that the Army's investigation left many questions unanswered. The body of the unidentified Panamanian was not recovered, although it lay by the roadside two days before it was transported to a morgue. The Army's Criminal Investigative Command was not able to determine whether the Panamanian died of wounds suffered in the grenade attack and subsequent fire from other members of Bryan's platoon, or from the bullets Bryan fired at him minutes later when he made a sudden move.

The Army's actions have led some organizations to assert that the service is unfairly prosecuting Bryan. The U.S. Veterans News and Report, a publication in Fayetteville, N.C., has established a legal defense fund for him.

David H. Hackworth, a highly decorated former airborne colonel and military critic, said in an interview that he has looked into the Bryan case and concluded the Army was making him a scapegoat to avoid pursuing a number of alleged atrocities against civilians during the invasion. Hackworth said that during a recent visit to Fort Bragg, he was informed of two other cases in which unarmed Panamanians were shot while fleeing U.S. Army checkpoints.

A spokesman at Fort Bragg confirmed that the Army still has an investigation arising out of the death of another Panamanian, but declined to discuss details.

The Bryan case and another murder case involving a U.S. soldier from Fort Ord, Calif., who allegedly shot a woman outside a brothel in Panama during an unprovoked shooting spree, have stirred painful memories of the massacre of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam more than two decades ago that tarnished the service's image and inflamed anti-Vietnam War sentiment.

But one of Bryan's defenders said: "This is not a My Lai. This shooting was justified."

The incident that led to Bryan's murder charge took place at Madden Dam, a strategic water reservoir and hydroelectric plant outside Panama City that supplies electricity for Panama Canal operations and for the capital city.

Bryan's unit, Delta Company of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, arrived in Panama on Dec. 12, ostensibly for jungle training. But most men in the unit knew they might see action during their deployment because of the ongoing public confrontation between Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and the Bush administration.

On invasion night, Dec. 20, Delta Company moved quietly past Panama Defense Forces (PDF) barracks and checkpoints to Madden Dam, where they set up a protective traffic checkpoint.

By the third day of the invasion, Delta Company had secured several small nearby objectives and taken a number of prisoners, but had not fired any weapons or taken any casualties. The day before the shooting, Delta Company was told by Panamanian informants that PDF militia loyal to Noriega might have stolen a civilian car from an adjoining village.

Staff Sgt. Joseph W. St. John II, recounting the episode in a Fayetteville television interview Jan. 12, said he was in charge of the roadblock when he recognized the suspicious car approaching. He ordered its five occupants out for a search.

"Sgt. {Aurelio G.} Delarosa began checking the interior and found a tear gas grenade, a machete and some other items and said, 'Hey, these guys are PDF,' and we immediately got them down on the ground. I began searching the soldiers when one of them stood up.

"I ordered him back down on the ground, but he looked very confused and while we were yelling at him in Spanish and English, trying to get him back on the ground to regain control of the situation, Sgt. Delarosa leveled his shotgun at the man."

St. John continued, "At that time I saw the shotgun out of the right corner of my eye and an explosion to my right rear which was the hand grenade and it threw me into the ditch and threw him straight up in the air."

St. John, Delarosa and seven other U.S. soldiers lay on the ground bleeding and crying out, "Medic, Medic," witnesses said.

The grenade blast triggered a chaotic and immediate reaction, with platoon members opening fire on the five Panamanians, killing four outright.

The first medical corpsman who reached St. John found him in "death pallor, gray as slate." He had a "sucking chest wound" while Delarosa had major shrapnel wounds in his legs and back.

Medevac helicopters were called in. The soldier who wrapped St. John in a poncho to lift him aboard the truck ferrying the wounded to the landing zone could see St. John's lung through the wound and feared he would die.

"Our security forces that were watching the operation returned fire to protect our lives," St. John said in the interview, adding: "We were still vulnerable. These guys, we didn't know what else they had on them, if they were going to throw another grenade or what. They were killed at that time."

According to testimony in a May hearing, Bryan was sitting in a command vehicle 50 feet away when the grenade blast brought him scrambling toward the checkpoint to survey the wounded. He ran back to the command car twice with information about where the evacuation helicopters should land.

Meanwhile, Thomas reached the scene. He testified that he noticed one of the Panamanians still moving and dragged him back from the blast scene when Bryan approached and shot the man without cause.

However, a number of other eyewitnesses contradict Thomas on this key point. These witnesses say Pvt. David Irwin, who had been slightly wounded in the grenade attack, dragged the Panamanian back to the vicinity of the American wounded. Irwin, pulling the injured Panamanian by his feet, dropped him and turned toward the approaching Bryan to ask for instructions.

At that moment, Bryan and several eyewitnesses saw a sudden hand or arm movement of the man on the ground. Bryan fired two or three bursts from his M-16 rifle at the man. A burst was one pull of the trigger, firing three rounds.

Another platoon member, Specialist Robert J. Valley, testified that he was standing guard over the scene and observing Irwin and the lone Panamanian, whose movement alarmed him. Valley testified that he had "taken a bead" on the Panamanian when he saw Bryan, who shouted at the man in Spanish in words Valley believed were an order to stop moving. Valley said the wounded Panamanian kept moving and Bryan shot him, according to sources familiar with the testimony.

Valley could not be reached for comment.

The first Army investigative report on Dec. 26 misstated key facts about the incident. The report said the grenade had rolled out of the car and that the Panamanians were shot inside the car.

In several recent news accounts, some unidentified Army officials have been quoted saying the shooting occurred after the "surrender" of the Panamanian.

"There was no surrender and the man had not been searched when he moved," said one source familiar with the testimony.

At the request of Bryan's attorneys, the Army declassified the combat orders for the Panama invasion, which put strong emphasis on protecting U.S. lives and eliminating any threats in combat "with surprise, speed and violence of execution."

On June 5, Col. Jack P. Nix, commander of the 82nd Airborne's 1st Brigade, said after his review of the 700-page record in the case, "I have determined that {the murder charge} is not supported by the available evidence, particularly with respect to the unlawfulness of the killing."

Nix overruled hearing officer Lt. Col. John C. Woloski, who said the conflicting testimony in the case and lack of physical evidence could perhaps justify a "technical" assessment that Bryan should stand trial on a charge of voluntary manslaughter. But Woloski added, "I feel compelled to add that . . . under the circumstances surrounding the incident . . . no court would ever find 1st Sgt. Bryan guilty and if I were a court member, knowing the evidence as I do now, I would find him not guilty."

Nix was overruled June 8 by Maj. Gen. James H. Johnson Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

The Panama invasion commander, Lt. Gen. Carl W. Stiner, who also commanded the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, which includes the 82nd Airborne, declined to make a recommendation in the case before he left his post June 27 to take over the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla. An Army spokesman said Stiner did not have the opportunity to do so because the case was not formally presented to him.

Stiner's successor, Luck, ruled July 3 that Bryan should stand trial on a charge of murder without premeditation, for which the maximum penalty is life in prison.