Noting similarities to the case of an Army officer he defended more than one year ago, a U.S. military lawyer says Marine commanders should have the courage to dismiss charges against a lieutenant who could face the death penalty for killing two insurgent terrorists in Iraq.

Pantano addressing officers of TBS (The Basic School), October 2003

Neal A. Puckett, who represented Lt. Col. Allen B. West, told WorldNetDaily the case of Second Lieutenant Ilario G. Pantano could set a dangerous precedent.

Pantano, charged Feb. 1 with premeditated murder in connection with the April 15, 2004, shooting incident, claims one of the men he shot appeared to be preparing to attack the Marines or detonate nearby explosives.

“It sets a terrible precedent for Marines, who have to make life-or-death decisions in the field, facing terrorists who follow no rules or laws of war,” Puckett said in an e-mailed response.

Noting that the combat incident was investigated at the time, clearing anyone of wrongdoing, Puckett said it “defies logic” that the case should be re-opened the following year with criminal charges.

Puckett said Marines now apparently must fear prosecutors as well as terrorists.

“Monday morning quarterbacking, in the absence of any evidence of criminal intent on the part of a trained Marine officer, is just the wrong way to run a war,” he said.

“If the officer made a mistake, that should end the matter. Mistakes are made in war. It sounds like Marine prosecutors are trying to justify their jobs by creating a case where there should not be one.”

Puckett said the “more ominous possibility” is that outside political pressure is causing military brass to turn against their young leaders.

“That’s just wrong,” he said. “I think most veterans would agree.”

‘What’s he supposed to do?’

According to news reports yesterday, Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division, convened an investigation to determine if the 33-year-old Pantano should stand trial, but no further details were released.

Charles Gittins, Pantano’s civilian attorney, said, however, the Marine has been formally charged with murder and has “made it pretty firmly clear that he is not guilty.”

The platoon Pantano commanded had been ordered to search a suspected terrorist hide-out south of Baghdad last April. After finding weapons, ammunition and bomb-making material in the building, the Marines saw two men fleeing in a sport utility vehicle, Gittins said, according to the wire report.

The Marines shot out the vehicles tires and took two Iraqi men into custody, ordering them to search for booby traps and secret compartments in the vehicle by ripping out its interior and seats, Gittins told Reuters.

Then, according to Gittins, one of the suspects turned suddenly toward Pantano “as if to attack.” When Pantano ordered them to stop, they kept moving toward him, Gittins said.

Pantano “thought he was in danger and he fired and he killed them and that’s what we do to terrorists who don’t listen to orders. … It’s a combat situation, kill or be killed,” the attorney told Reuters.

Fearing the two suspects might have been attempting to detonate explosives remotely, Pantano shot them, Gittins said.

“What’s he supposed to do, wait until he’s standing in the inferno?” the attorney added.

After the incident, Pantano served three more months in Iraq then returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina at the end of his tour of duty.

Possible outcomes to the case, say Marine investigators, are that Pantano could be court-martialed, disciplined administratively or have the charges dropped.

‘Lives of my men’

As WorldNetDaily reported West was charged with aggravated assault after a 2003 incident in which he took charge of the interrogation of an Iraqi policeman believed to be withholding information about a planned ambush of West and his unit.

Threatening to kill the Iraqi if he didn’t talk, West fired a pistol near the policeman’s head, not harming him – but scaring him. The policeman immediately disclosed the information, leading to the arrest of two Iraqis and cessation of attacks on West’s 4th Infantry Division battalion.

But Army prosecutors said West’s actions had violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Although he faced a wide range of possible outcomes – from no disciplinary action to a sentence of up to eight years in prison – he ultimately was fined $5,000.

At a hearing in late 2003, West was asked by his defense attorney if he would do it again.

“If it’s about the lives of my men and their safety, I’d go through hell with a gasoline can,” he said.

‘Who is my son?’

Merry Pantano, the accused Marine’s mother, has created a website titled “Defend the Defenders” to tell her son’s story and raise money for his defense.

“Who is my son?” she asks on the website:

He is a young, intelligent, charismatic Marine officer and all that that entails. And yet he is incomprehensibly charged with heinous crimes related to a dangerous military operation that took place in “the triangle of death” just south of Baghdad.

It was during the peak of insurgent violence in mid April of 2004, with hundreds of fellow Marines and soldiers being killed and wounded throughout the “Sunni Triangle.” Terrorists, captured while trying to recover a vehicle used in an earlier attack on the Marines, had given detailed information about a supply of weapons and terrorist hideout that my son and his platoon were hastily dispatched to search. Their search revealed weapons, ammunition, mortar equipment, bomb-making material and two fleeing terrorists.

In an ensuing search of the terrorists’ vehicle, my son, concerned for his safety and the safety of his men shot them both in self defense and then disabled their vehicle so it could not be used in further attacks. He and his men went on to fight with distinction and honor in Falluja and the surrounding areas and, when possible, aided in the reconstruction effort. Months later, the government began an investigation that only now, 10 months after the fact, alleges an evil intent which is at polar opposite of my son’s character and principles.

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