Murder charges against 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, the Marine who shot to death two Iraqi insurgents in a raid near Baghdad last year, should be dropped, according to the recommendation of the investigating officer in the high-profile case.

2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano opens the courthouse door for his wife, Jill, at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The 16-page report is now in the hands of Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, who has the authority to follow the recommendation or order a court-martial.

The investigating officer, Lt. Col. Mark E. Winn, said the prosecution’s chief witness, Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn, is unreliable, according to the Washington Times, which obtained a copy of the report.

“The government was not able to produce credible evidence or testimony that the killings were premeditated,” Winn wrote. “I think now [Sgt. Coburn] is in a position where he has told his story so many times, in so many versions that he cannot keep his facts straight anymore.”

Pantano removed Coburn as squad leader weeks before the April 14, 2004, shooting.

Winn’s report is based on a five-day pretrial hearing last month at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Pantano, a platoon leader in the volatile Sunni Triangle last spring, insists he acted in self-defense against suspected insurgents after they attempted to drive away from a house where weapons were found. The Marine Corps – which presented two fellow officers at the hearing – contends Pantano commited numerous violations of the Uniform Military Code and executed the Iraqis to send a message to the enemy.

The investigating officer recommended all criminal charges be dropped, including murder and destruction of the Iraqis’ vehicle.

He recommended, however, that Pantano face administration punishment for firing too many rounds at the two men.

The defense had objected to the choice of Winn as investigating officer, arguing he has no legal experience and made disparaging remarks about defense counsel.

In Pantano’s unsuccessful request to bypass the pretrial, or Article 32, hearing and hold a court-martial, his defense team claimed the government was withholding key evidence and witnesses. The team argued only a military judge, with an understanding of the laws of evidence, can compel the prosecution to provide them with the material they need.

Responding to Winn’s report, the Marine’s mother Merry K. Pantano – a New York literary agent who launched an organization to defend her son and others in similar situations – thanked media for playing a “very important role in the outcome of my son’s case.”

“The public response in support of my son has been overwhelming,” she said. “The support for my son and the outrage expressed because of these charges against him have come from concerned citizens in every state in the Union. We are a voice. We are here. We are not going away.”

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