CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A former Wall Street trader who rejoined the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks will not be tried on murder charges for killing two suspected Iraqi insurgents, a Marine general decided Thursday.
“The best interests of 2nd Lt. Pantano and the government have been served by this process,” the Marine Corps said in a statement.
The decision by Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune, ends the prosecution of 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, whom prosecutors accused of killing the men without justification.
“Down at the unit level, there was never a question about Ilario’s conduct and whether or not he did the right thing,” Charles Gittins, Pantano’s civilian lawyer, said. “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.”
“That’s exciting, isn’t it,” said Pantano’s mother, Merry Pantano of New York, who said she hadn’t yet spoken to her son about the decision. “Needless to say, we are quite ecstatic.”
April 2004 incident
The two Iraqis were killed during an April 2004 search outside a suspected terrorist hideout in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. Pantano contended he shot them in self-defense after the men disobeyed his instructions and made a menacing move toward him.
Prosecutors alleged Pantano 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. While citing self-defense as his motive, Pantano did not deny hanging the sign or shooting the men repeatedly.
An Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury session, was held in April. In a report dated May 12, the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Mark Winn, had recommended that the murder charges be dropped.
While finding some problems with Pantano’s behavior, Winn concluded that one witness’ accusation that Pantano shot the detainees while they were kneeling with their backs to him was not supported by other testimony or evidence.
Winn wrote in his recommendation that Pantano should face nonjudicial punishment for allegedly desecrating the bodies by reloading his weapon and repeatedly shooting them. Pantano said he shot the men until they stopped moving.
Huck could have accepted Winn’s recommendation, given some form of administrative punishment or gone ahead with a court-martial. He decided that Pantano should face no punishment for any of his actions.
Praised by most witnesses
Witnesses testified the sergeant who was Pantano’s main accuser was a weak Marine bitter about Pantano removing him from a leadership role within the platoon.
More than a half-dozen Marines who served with Pantano in Iraq praised him in testimony, saying he was an able leader who remained cool in combat and was amiable with Iraqis.
Pantano, 33, is now helping to train troops at Camp Lejeune, but his attorney said he hopes the decision will clear the way for the Marine to return to a combat unit.
“I think (the decision) demonstrates that Ilario acted honorably in combat and the suggestion that he didn’t that tarnished his reputation was unjustified,” Gittins said. “I’m pleased for Ilario and his family because the nightmare is over.”
Supporters of Pantano said troops should not be second-guessed for decisions made in fleeting seconds of combat. A North Carolina congressman had urged President Bush to intervene and dismiss charges.
Pantano also has become a popular subject for conservative radio hosts, and his mother started a Web site in his defense.
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