If it hasn't been obvious all along, I'll admit it right here: I've got a huge bias with respect to this story.
I want Lt. Ilario Pantano, the Marine accused of murder in the shooting deaths of two Iraqis, to be innocent of the charges against him. I don't want to believe that a man who did so much right with his life, and for his country, could do something as callous and cruel as what he's been accused of.
But I said in the follow-up to my previous post on Pantano that I would consider new information as it becomes available, and now we've got some.
Pantano's lawyer, Charles Gittins, claims a U.S. Navy man who witnessed the shooting agrees that the two Iraqis disregarded Pantano's order, in Arabic, to stop moving.
However, the Navy witness claims the two men were moving away from Pantano, while Pantano claims they were moving toward him.
More details of the accuser's story have also come out, and they're pretty grim:
The accuser, described by Gittins as a "disgruntled" Marine Corps sergeant who served as a radio man, asserts Pantano relieved men who were guarding the Iraqis. The accuser said Pantano sent the guards away so they couldn't see what he was doing and uncuffed the Iraqis. Then, according to the claim, Pantano shot the Iraqis in the back, left their bodies lying out in the open and put a mocking sign on them in order to "send a message."The new information is, to varying degrees, troubling. But the key point is, we now have three different versions of what happened:
Gittins contends, however, that no one was relieved of guarding the Iraqis or told to turn away, and the Iraqis were shot all over their bodies – their backs, sides and fronts – with many rounds.
No sign was put on their bodies, he claimed, but Pantano put a sign on the SUV with the words, in English, of 1st Marine Division commander Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis: "No better friend. No worse enemy."
Mattis stirred controversy earlier this month for saying at a conference "it's fun to shoot" terrorists.
Pantano says the Iraqis disobeyed his order to stop, and he shot them as they were moving toward him.
The Navy witness agrees the Iraqis disobeyed Pantano's order to stop, but claims he shot them as they were moving away from him.
And the accuser claims Pantano essentially executed the Iraqis, shooting them in the back in cold blood.
Notably, the accuser's story differs considerably from those of Pantano and the Navy witness. His claim of a cold-blooded execution followed by desecration of the corpses strikes me as fantastic.
Given that the Navy witness apparently corroborates Pantano's own account, save for the issue of whether the Iraqis were moving away or toward him, it seems that we're still left with a Marine who shot two men after they ignored his order to stop where they were.
It will be up to the Marines to decide whether that constitutes murder.
In another twist, the Washington Times reports there is some uncertainty as to whether Pantano is even being charged with murder at all:
Last week, the Corps initially announced that 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano faced unspecified charges in the shooting deaths. Lt. Pantano's civilian attorney, Charles Gittins, told reporters his client faced two murder charges.I hope Gittins is right.
But later, spokesman Maj. Matt Morgan, at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Lt. Pantano is based, said the officer had not been charged.
This came as a surprise to Mr. Gittins, who said he has a copy of the official charge sheet signed by a prosecuting judge advocate that was handed to his client Feb. 1. On the sheet, it clearly states the Marine Corps has charged the 33-year-old officer with two counts of murder.
The Corps stands by how it has handled public relations in the criminal case of Lt. Pantano.
"I think it is because they are embarrassed by the fact they have charged him with premeditated murder," Mr. Gittins said yesterday. "They are looking for a way out."