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Ex-Marine Warns Not to Rush to Judgment

Ilario G. Pantano was cleared in two killings in Iraq and says others accused may be too.

September 09, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — This is not the role Ilario G. Pantano had in mind when he reenlisted in the Marine Corps after Sept. 11. He wanted to join the fight against terrorism.

But now he's doing something different: pleading with Americans not to presume that a growing number of Marines and soldiers accused of atrocities in Iraq are actually guilty.

He is the voice of experience. The second lieutenant was charged with killing two unarmed Iraqi prisoners but was exonerated last year in a high-profile preliminary hearing at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The case destroyed his Marine Corps career but gave him a new mission. Pantano resigned his commission in mid-2005.

"He is the perfect spokesman for the idea that you shouldn't prejudge," said Charles W. Gittins, his lawyer. "The case against him was supposedly solid but it fell apart quickly. It could happen again."

Gittins, in San Diego to defend a sergeant accused in a drowning at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, wants Pantano to run for office. Pantano, 35, now living in North Carolina, says he's keeping his options open.

"What a great congressman or senator," Gittins said. "There are guys in those offices now who can't carry his briefcase."

Marine Sgt. Daniel Coburn, who accused Pantano of killing two defenseless Iraqis and of falsely claiming that the two were making threatening movements, has apparently not changed his mind.

The sergeant no longer talks to reporters, but his wife, Rae Anne, was scalding in expressing the family's opinion of Pantano: "He's a fake, and the media loves him because he's good-looking and articulate," she said.

On the articulate part, there is little doubt. Comfortable in front of cameras and unwavering in his opinions, Pantano has made the rounds of the political talk shows.

Even the acerbic and liberal-leaning Jon Stewart seemed impressed when Pantano appeared on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central. Pantano told the audience that no one could comprehend the brutality and moral confusion of war who had not seen it.

The war in Iraq, he said, boils down to deciding between a bad choice and a worse one.

"One day you're interrogating a grandmother in front of her grandchildren because her son is a sniper and you've got to find this guy because he's killing your men," he said. "But she has lost children to Saddam -- maybe four or five of them. You feel now this inner struggle: 'Am I becoming the beast?' "

Conservative bloggers championed Pantano's defense during the court case and are now praising his book "Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy," which tells of his combat in Iraq and his courtroom experiences at Camp Lejeune.

Blogger Michelle Malkin, a regular on Bill O'Reilly's show on Fox television, has given her blog following a direct order: "Your mission: Make this book a best-seller. Spread the word."

Pantano has bantered with MSNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews, written a letter to the Washington Post blasting Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) for accusing Marines of "cold-blooded murder," and had a chapter of "Warlord" published in Soldier of Fortune magazine.

After growing up in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood and attending a prep school on scholarship, he joined the Marine Corps and served on the front line as a sergeant in the Persian Gulf War.

After leaving the Corps, he graduated from New York University and became a commodities broker and then a multimedia entrepreneur.

Even before the dust from the World Trade Center settled in 2001, he said, he'd hurried to a barber for a "high-and-tight" haircut to begin feeling like a Marine again.

He reenlisted shortly after the attacks and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

But just months into his first tour in Iraq in 2004 as commander of a rifle platoon, Pantano was pulled from combat and ordered back to the U.S. to answer the murder charges.

Although he did not testify at the hearing, he had insisted to investigators that he killed the two Iraqis after they made threatening moves at him. His accuser, Coburn, with whom Pantano had clashed, was judged by the hearing officer to lack credibility.

Pantano's legal strategy was aggressive and media-smart and has become a kind of standard for other military personnel facing similar charges, particularly the seven Marines and Navy corpsman at Camp Pendleton accused of kidnapping and murdering a 52-year-old Iraqi.

Like Pantano, each of the so-called Pendleton 8 has hired a civilian attorney not bound by military restrictions about talking to reporters and not reluctant to criticize military investigators. Each of the eight, also like Pantano, has a website devoted to his defense.

Pantano is worried that decisions about bringing criminal charges are often made by investigators and officers without direct combat experience. The line between acceptable and unacceptable violence in Iraq is hard to discern, he said.

"Sadly, we want the line to be a very rigid and moral one," he said. "Unfortunately, that line moves as the intensity of combat builds."

Marines and soldiers may become reluctant to fire their weapons for fear of being criticized or charged, he warned. "Our reluctance to apply the right amount of violence upfront has only allowed a festering wound of the insurgency to get worse."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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