But now, as the Republican Wilmington resident again seeks a seat in Congress in 2012, Pantano says the recent words of the military medical examiner who inspected the remains of the two men after they were exhumed in 2005 should put those questions to rest.
“In my mind, it really closes the book,” Pantano said.
Pantano recently re-released his book detailing the killings and the Article 32 hearing – the military equivalent to a grand jury proceeding – that followed.
“Warlord: Broken by War, Saved by Grace” also includes an April 2011 letter to Pantano from Dr. William Rodriguez III, the recently retired former chief deputy medical examiner for special investigations at the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in Washington, D.C.
In the letter, Rodriguez expresses frustration that premeditated murder charges would be brought against Pantano without first examining the remains of the dead Iraqis. without that evidence, Rodriguez writes, Pantano’s prosecution hinged on the testimony of one member of the platoon that Pantano led.
Rodriguez also expressed concern that the military rushed to prosecute Pantano, then 33, as the shootings closely followed the incident at Abu Ghraib prison, a black eye for the military.
When the bodies were exhumed about a year after the shootings, with Pantano’s case still open, Rodriguez conducted the examination.
What he saw, he said in a phone interview with the StarNews, made it “very clear” that the men were not shot from behind, as some had suggested.
“I said to all assembled, ‘here is solid scientific evidence that these two Iraqis were shot from the front and not in their backs,’” he wrote in the letter. “Lt. Pantano is innocent.”
Rodriguez said the positions of bone fragments fractured by bullets were a clear indication that the shots came from the front. also, he said, copper oxidation stains on the front side of the skeletons also suggested the bullets entered from the front. Bullets, Rodriguez said, are encased in copper jackets that peel away and break up in the body. over time, the copper oxidizes and leaves stains, he said.
Rodriguez said he read Pantano’s book and has spoken with him since he sent the letter. He said Pantano’s life might be much different if the bodies had been examined before the military brought charges against him.
“I feel that he is a true patriot, a caring individual and a good man,” Rodriguez said.
But whether the new developments in the years-old case will improve his election chances in 2012 remain to be seen. Pantano is expected to face state Sen. David Rouzer of Johnston County in the 2012 GOP primary for the 7th Congressional District seat. the winner likely would challenge U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-Lumberton, in November. Pantano lost an election bid against McIntyre in 2010.
Articles about Rodriguez’s letter have been published recently in the Washington Times and other publications outside of North Carolina.
“Clearly, the Pantano campaign thought this was an issue in the 2010 campaign, and this could be an attempt to put it behind him before the campaign kicks into high gear,” said Jonathan Kappler, research director for the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation and a close follower of N.C. politics.
Rouzer, Pantano’s opponent in the May primary, declined to comment on the Iraq incident or the recent development.
“My campaign is going to focus on the issues and what we need to do to move the country forward and my conservative record in the state legislature,” he said.
For his part, Pantano said he believes he was exonerated six years ago, when the Marine Corps decided not to pursue murder charges against him. But, he wrote in his book, the Rodriguez letter “clears the air around any mystery that lingers among conspiracy theorists.”
He said it shows that he’s not a “cold-blooded murderer” and that he didn’t execute the two men.
The letter, Pantano said, also shows that there was an urgency to prosecute him, not find the truth.
“Not only was I not protected by the military, I was made an example of,” he continues. “I have known this all along, but until I received this letter, there was no proof.”
In 2005, a Marine Corps official decided to dismiss the murder charges after a hearing in Jacksonville, in part because of the autopsy evidence.
On April 15, 2004, Pantano led his platoon to search a house. There, two Iraqi men were stopped as they left the area in a white sedan. After ordering the men to search their own car, Pantano shot and killed them, firing as many as 50 shots. the Iraqis had made a threatening move, he said, and the rules of engagement dictated that he had a right to defend himself.
Pantano admitted placing a sign on the car with the slogan, “No better Friend no Worse Enemy.” A Marine Corps official deemed that ill-advised.
Pantano said he didn’t believe the letter would have a strong impact his 2012 election bid.
“I think my election chances are very good without this information,” he said.
He added that he believed the “whisper campaigns” would continue about Iraq.
“For years, I have been living with and struggling with the fact that you can’t put my name into Google without charges of murder coming up,” Pantano said.
Speaking of the Internet age, he added, “An allegation today, even if it’s a false allegation, never goes away.”
Patrick Gannon: (919) 854-6115
On Twitter: @StarNewsPat