May 27, 2005

Lawyer Gittins gets another one off

I see lawyer Charles Gittins, who successfully defended the F-16 pilot who killed Canadians in Afghanistan, got himself another notch this week from the equittal of Marine officer Ilario Pantano.

Gittins reused several tactics he tried out with success in defending fighter pilot Harry Schmidt... specifically the creation of a pro-defendant website and the recruitment of friendly bloggers to support his "wrongfully accused" claims.

The particulars of the Pantano case were never in dispute... after a successful raid of an Iraqi house, two Iraqi men that had attempted to flee in a white car were handcuffed, and their car was searched twice, to the point of having the seats and dashboard removed. Pantano then uncuffed them, ordered the two men to search it again, and ordered the two soldiers who were with him to stand guard facing so that they were not looking at the car. Shortly afterwards, he fired an entire M-16 magazine into the two Iraqis, reloaded, and emptied another into their long-dead corpses. Pantano claimed they had been turning towards him and talking in low voices as if to charge... whether they were planning to attack Pantano, or run, or neither, what is certain is that they didn't get very far, as their bodies had fallen back inside the car. No one else saw what had happened, but one of the other two soldiers said he had heard Pantano say "stop" (or possibly "stop talking")* before shooting them; the other, a sergeant who had a grudge against Pantano, did not. But both witnesses would later give legal statements doubting the need for the shooting.

Gittins showed the same media mastery he showed in the Schmidt case, first stating in the press that his defence would focus on the military record of the grudge case, Sgt. Coburn. That little bit of defamation prompted Coburn to give an interview in New York magazine defending himself, in so doing disobeying a court gag order, a fact which Gittins then used to impeach Coburn on the witness stand. After that, the dropping of the case for reasons of insufficient evidence was probably inevitable.

*What's interesting about the New York piece is Pantano, in his clearest account of what happened, never states the fact that would most clearly serve to exonerate him, that he said "stop," as in "stop moving," before firing. He does say he told the two men to "stop talking," and an witness corroborates that. That same witness, the medic Gobles, would give a series of contradictory statements on what happened... evidently very loyal to Pantano, his story on the witness stand at the evidentiary hearing would later change to his hearing Pantano say just "stop," as if the men were moving away from the car and threatening him, as opposed to simply continuing to talk to each other. It's not impossible to imagine, as I'm sure the Marine JAG officers did, an exasperated and war-stressed Pantano shooting two prisoners in part because they wouldn't shut up when he ordered them to. But with only two witnesses, both found to be insufficiently reliable, there was no case left to prosecute, as the Marines rightly recognized.

Posted by BruceR at 02:57 PM