May 16, 2005 — -- Murder charges against Wall Street-trader-turned-Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano should be dropped, according to a report by an investigating officer.
The New York-born Marine is accused of premeditated murder in the deaths of two Iraqi civilians, but maintains he acted in self-defense last year during combat operations.
"He's pleased to see what has come to light, something he's been saying from the very beginning," Pantano's mother, Merry Pantano, told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Pantano's fate now rests with a company commander at Camp Lejeune, N.C., who must decide whether to drop charges, which could have resulted in the death penalty. A military spokesman said the decision will be made within "a reasonable time period."
The investigating officer, Lt. Col. Mark Winn, filed his report last week; in it, he stated that the government offered no credible evidence to contradict Pantano's statement that he acted in self-defense. "It is my recommendation," Winn wrote, "that the charges be withdrawn."
"They did a quick investigation on the battlefield," Pantano's wife, Jill, told "Good Morning America" of the initial military investigation. "They interviewed only one person, my husband's sole accuser, Sgt. Daniel Coburn."
Winn questioned Coburn's credibility, noting that the sergeant's testimony changed after reading accounts of other witnesses in the newspapers. Coburn, Pantano's radio operator during the incident, had claimed in his account of the killings that Pantano had appeared agitated and seemed like he wanted to teach the insurgents a lesson. The charges of premeditated murder were based in part on Coburn's early statements.
Winn also noted that Pantano's performance and reputation prior to the killing were outstanding. Pantano's fellow Marines testified during his pretrial hearing in early May that they trusted Pantano and would seek to go to combat with him again in the future.
Pantano, a native New Yorker who served in the first Gulf War, had re-enlisted after Sept. 11, 2001, leaving a brokerage career and a family behind. During his first month of duty, Pantano's platoon was sent to an area south of Baghdad known as the "triangle of death."
On April 15, 2004, the platoon was sent to a house where weapons had just been found. Pantano stopped a car with two suspected Iraqi insurgents inside who were leaving the house. Reports of what happened next differ, but Pantano admits he shot and killed the two Iraqis. Pantano claimed he shot the two men as they turned toward him, but Coburn claimed the shootings, in which 50-plus rounds were fired, were unjustified.
"In the heat of the battle when you're being attacked what difference does it make? The important thing is you survive," said his mother.
The report was not all glowing.
Winn wrote that it was "morally and ethically wrong" to fire such an excessive amount of bullets into the bodies. Winn said that act was "to the disgrace of the armed forces" and that it should be punished, possibly by loss of rank or other sanctions.
"We must never allow ourselves to vacate the moral high ground under the guise of 'sending a message to these Iraqis and others' in order to intimidate," Winn wrote. "As officers in the United States Military, it is our sacred obligation to teach our juniormen what is moral and just in war, and what is not."