MIAMI – Cast as a murderous al-Qaida warrior when arrested five years ago, Jose Padilla goes on trial this week on downsized charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism.
The 36-year-old former Chicago gang member originally was accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in an unnamed U.S. city. In a dramatic satellite broadcast from Moscow in May 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft portrayed Padilla’s interception at O’Hare International Airport as a government victory in averting a disaster on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But after holding Padilla in solitary confinement in a South Carolina military brig for 3 1/2 years, deprived for months of human contact and subjected to sensory-distorting extremes of light, temperature, noise and odor, the Bush administration dropped its contention that the U.S.-born suspect figured in any specific bomb plot.
The government’s shift on Padilla has made his trial, which begins today in federal court in Miami with jury selection, a focal point in the national debate over how terrorism suspects are treated. Padilla’s detention without charges as an “enemy combatant” was about to come under U.S. Supreme Court review when he was indicted in U.S. District Court here on the conspiracy charges in November 2005. He was transferred to the Miami federal detention center two months later.
Jury consultant and social psychologist Arthur H. Patterson says the Miami-area jury pool is seen as a haven for conservatives, but could include significant numbers of Hispanics who might see Padilla, who is of Puerto Rican descent, as a victim of racial profiling.
“On the one hand, you have juror fear of terrorism and concern about national security – very understandably; that’s human nature. On the other hand, you have jurors wanting to do the right thing,” said Patterson, a former Pennsylvania State University professor consulting for Los Angeles-based DecisionQuest. “All of our research shows jurors really do want to reach what they think is the right verdict. They don’t want to convict an innocent person.”
Padilla and two co-defendants, former San Diego resident Kifah Wael Jayyousi and Adham Amin Hassoun of South Florida, are accused of providing money and manpower to extremist groups in areas where Muslims have clashed with Christians, including Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke has dismissed about one-third of the 550 potential jurors because they admitted on questionnaires that they didn’t consider themselves capable of unbiased judgment due to memories of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Padilla has sustained several perceived setbacks in pretrial procedures before Cooke, who ruled in February that Padilla was competent to stand trial. She did not agree that his imprisonment caused him to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and Stockholm syndrome, in which he felt he must side with his captors.