Americans outraged at the murder charges against a Marine who claims he killed two insurgent terrorists in Iraq in self-defense should have confidence in the military justice system, insists a Marine Corps spokesman.

Ilario Pantano and family (

Maj. Matt Morgan of Camp Lejeune, N.C., told WorldNetDaily he understands why the public is rallying behind 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano after news of his case broke Friday.

“Americans have seen what is in the press, and they have a tendency to support the Marines,” he said. “On the other side of that, completely unconnected, there is something called the law of war, and it is possible for a Marine to violate that. To say you can’t second-guess a Marine – well, every Marine who deploys has the experience that anything they do can be second-guessed.”

As WorldNetDaily reported, Pantano, 33, was charged Feb. 1 with premeditated murder in connection with an April 15, 2004, shooting incident. He claims one of the men he shot appeared to be preparing to attack his platoon or detonate nearby explosives.

“I just believe that it’s important for Americans to have faith in the judicial process and understand that Lt. Pantano is presumed innocent and will continue to be so unless determined otherwise,” Morgan said.

Pantano’s attorney Charles Gittins, however, told WND his client is “very angry.”

“He feels like he’s been betrayed,” Gittins said. “What has to be annoying is that he reported to his superiors very shortly thereafter that he killed these two Iraqis.”

Nobody took him out of combat duty, the attorney emphasized.

“They didn’t mind him out there dodging bullets for three months after this happened,” Gittins said, adding it was only after returning to the U.S. that Pantano was charged.

Sunni Triangle

The Marine officer, who arrived in Iraq in March 2004, led a quick-reaction platoon that responded to intelligence reports on weapons caches and hide-outs in the volatile “Sunni Triangle,” where suicide bombers feigning surrender and booby-trapped bodies and vehicles often threaten U.S. soldiers. In the April incident, the platoon stopped two men who fled in an SUV from a hide-out where weapons were discovered. Pantano said the two men came toward him despite his command in Arabic to stop.

An Article 32 hearing – a pretrial hearing – tentatively is scheduled for the end of the second week of March, Morgan said.

The Marine Corps spokesman contends it’s inaccurate to say Pantano has been “charged.” “Formal allegations” have been filed, he said, which should not be equated with a criminal indictment.

But Gittins argues a formal accusation in the military is a criminal-offense charge.

In this case, he said, “an officer authorized to adminster oaths has obtained sworn charges from an accuser in the military.”

“That is how you charge someone with a criminal offene in the military,” he said. “There is no analogy in the Uniform Code of Military Justice to an indictment. There is no grand jury, and the Article 32 investigation recommendation need not be followed.”

In an Article 32 investigation – required in any case in which a court martial is under consideration – a presiding officer hears the prosecution, allows the defense to cross-examine and present its evidence, then makes a recommendation to the presiding authority – in this instance Maj. Gen. Richard Huck.

Huck would then have a full range of punitive options, from a general court martial – the equivalent of a felony trial – to dismissal.

Gittins, a Marine reserve, questions the thoroughness of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe that led to the charges, asserting that while his client has a track record of outstanding character and credibility, the accuser is suspect.

“There’s reason to believe he might not be a big fan of Lt. Pantano,” Gittins said.

He described the accuser as a “disgruntled” sergeant who holds the position of radio man, a non-leadership position that indicates he’s been put in a place where he can do the least harm.

“No one actually went and looked at the lack-of-credibility issues,” he said. “There is no evidence of any investigation.”

‘Things that need to be done’

Pantano, who grew up in New York City, served as an enlisted Marine in the 1991 Gulf War at age 19. Then, moved by the 9-11 attacks, he left behind his film-making company to enter officer-training school and earn a Marine Corps commission.

A friend, James Rafferty, told the New York Times the Sept. 11 attacks brought Pantano “to the realization that he is a Marine and there are things that need to be done so that stuff like this doesn’t happen again. It would be hard to sit back and not be a part of that.”

Rafferty added, “I think he felt like his brothers are going to fight for our freedom, and if he still can, then he will.”

Gittins pointed out that the leadership in Iraq stood behind Pantano after the April incident.

“People making the decisions are sitting in air-conditioned offices of Camp Lejeune, not on the battlefield,” he said.

The issue, said Gittins, is how the military defines self-defense.

“There is no question my guy intended to kill them,” he said. “Is that murder or lawful killing in the normal process of war? ”

A Marine, he said, has both the right and obligation of self-defense if he comes upon a situation in which he is threatened.

“My threshhold for self-defense might be higher or lower,” the lawyer said. “But we should not be in the business of second-guessing.”

Gittins believes the case will have a damaging effect on recruiting and morale.

“Every Marine knows that a Marine has been charged with premediated murder,” he said. “If it causes them to hesitate for one second because they worry about being second-guessed, that is criminal neglect on the part of Marine Corps leadership. We should not suffer one casualty because they are worried about being second-guessed.”

Marine Corps spokesman Morgan said he cannot discuss the facts of the case but noted the specific rules of engagment in operation during that time in the Sunni Triangle are crucial to determining whether Pantano violated the military code of justice or legitimately engaged in self-defense.

The thresholds vary from location to location and conflict to conflict, Morgan stated.

“Our Marines in that province are guided by a different set of rules than our Marines who are guarding armories here in the United States,” he explained.

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