The Marine Corps should drop murder charges against a lieutenant who fatally shot two Iraqi detainees during a search for a terrorist hideout, an investigating officer recommended in an opinion made public Friday.
Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano, a former Wall Street trader who rejoined the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks, did make "serious errors in tactical judgment," Lieutenant Colonel Mark Winn wrote in an opinion dated Thursday.
But he said key witnesses and evidence failed to back up the accusation that Pantano shot the detainees last year while they were kneeling with their backs to him.
Pantano is stationed at the Marine base, where his Article 32 hearing concluded April 30.
Winn recommended withdrawing most charges against Pantano, and said one charge -- that he desecrated the bodies by reloading his weapon and repeatedly shooting them -- should be referred for nonjudicial punishment.
Prosecutors alleged Pantano intended to make an example of the two detainees by shooting them 60 times and hanging a sign over their bodies -- "No better friend, no worse enemy," a Marine slogan.
"We must never allow ourselves to vacate the moral high ground under the guise of `sending a message to these Iraqis and others' in order to intimidate," Winn wrote. "As officers in the United States Military, it is our sacred obligation to teach our junior men what is moral and just in war, and what is not."
Military authorities may choose to accept Winn's recommendation, give some form of administrative punishment or go ahead with a court-martial.
Pantano's attorney, Charles Gittins, said the report showed no criminal charges should have been brought against his client.
"If it had been competently investigated by the criminal investigators, we wouldn't be where we are today," Gittins said, noting that Winn concluded one of the victims was not shot in the back by Pantano, as prosecutors alleged.
Pantano's mother, Merry Pantano of New York, said Friday the hearing officer "must have realized that the prosecution had no case. Their case just fell apart."
Referring to the recommendation that Pantano face nonjudicial punishment for repeatedly shooting the Iraqis, his mother said it appeared her son was being "reprimanded for so zealously killing the enemy."
Prosecutors allege that Pantano, 33, killed the suspected insurgents in April 2004 because he believed they were launching mortars at his troops.
Pantano never denied shooting the men, but said he acted in self-defense after the men disobeyed his instructions and made a menacing move toward him.