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Hearing begins for marine accused of killing 2 iraqis { April 27 2005 }

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April 27, 2005
Hearing Begins for Marine Accused of Killing 2 Iraqis
New York Times Regional Newspaper Group

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., April 26 - Military prosecutors ended months of silence on Tuesday as they presented their first witnesses in the case of a marine accused of murder during his platoon's search of a suspected insurgent hideout near Baghdad last year.

The accused marine, Second Lt. Ilario Pantano, 33, a former energy trader from New York City, could face the death penalty if formally charged and convicted of premeditated murder, the top charge that military officials are considering.

Lieutenant Pantano has stated that he killed Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil in self-defense, after they made what he perceived as a threatening move toward him, as they searched their own automobile under his order near Mahmudiyah, Iraq, about 15 miles from Baghdad, on April 15, 2004.

Prosecutors made no opening statement at the preliminary hearing on Tuesday, thus giving no road map to their case. But first clues to their basis for prosecution emerged as their first witnesses gave testimony before a hearing officer.

An Arabic translator who was at the scene of the killings, identified at the hearing only as Corporal O because of what officials said was his involvement with counterintelligence operations, said he questioned the two men after they were seized while leaving a house suspected of being an insurgent nest.

Corporal O said that the men offered no resistance but appeared frightened, and that they denied involvement with insurgent forces.

The corporal said he spoke with the men's relatives, who were outside the house in a different area, and had been gone from the pair for about a half-hour when he heard gunfire.

When he returned, he said, he saw the two men dead on their knees, half in and half out of their sedan.

"One in the front seat, one in the back seat, a door separating the two bodies, their knees on the ground," Corporal O said. "They looked like they were on their knees; they were shot in their backs."

Another prosecution witness, Lt. Samuel Cunningham, testified that he and other members of his squad were stationed a distance from the house when he heard 40 to 50 shots.

Maj. Stephen Keane, the lead prosecutor, asked Lieutenant Cunningham about methods of dealing with insurgents, and asked whether it was wise to have two Iraqis searching their own vehicle, as Lieutenant Pantano told investigators he had done.

Lieutenant Cunningham said he would not order such a search because it would pose a security risk for him and for the insurgents.

Charles Gittins, Lieutenant Pantano's civilian lawyer, said after Tuesday's hearing that his defense was not affected by the number of times Lieutenant Pantano fired, and that the position of the bodies as seen by a military translator were not germane to the case.

The defense team began its case before testimony began, when it challenged the fitness of the hearing officer, Maj. Mark E. Winn, to preside.

Capt. Brandon Bolling, a defense team member, asked Major Winn whether he had made disparaging remarks about defense counsel in a conversation last week.

The major was also asked whether he had said that he did not want any part of hearing the case and that a military judge should be handling it.

The conversation, Mr. Gittins said, took place at a bar called Kelsey's and involved a military member of the defense team.

Major Winn denied having any such conversation and turned down a defense challenge to his authority.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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