Cast as a murderous Al Qaeda 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 was originally 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-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft portrayed Padilla’s arrest at O’Hare International Airport as a government victory in averting another attack like Sept. 11.
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, 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 Supreme Court review when he was indicted in U.S. District Court 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 juror pool is seen as a haven for conservatives, but could include significant numbers of Latinos 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 now consulting for a Los Angeles-based firm.
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 get life in prison.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke has dismissed about a third of the 550 potential jurors because they admitted on questionnaires that they didn’t consider themselves capable of unbiased judgment because of 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.
Cooke also ruled against a defense claim that Padilla was unfairly deprived of a speedy trial, saying the federal case began with the Miami indictment.
But Cooke has excluded evidence obtained during brig interrogations -- a position analysts say could hobble the prosecution.
Neither defense nor prosecution lawyers would discuss the trial, as several motions are still pending. Among them is a prosecution request to allow a key government witness, a CIA agent, to testify in disguise.
In arguing the pretrial issues, lead public defender Anthony Natale complained that the government’s public accusation -- since dropped -- that Padilla was preparing to set off a radioactive bomb had irreparably prejudiced potential jurors.
Cooke last week rejected a defense motion to dismiss the case on grounds of “outrageous government conduct” in the treatment of Padilla, which another of his public defenders, Orlando do Campo, said amounted to torture and an effort to break his will to live.
The defense motion is based on information Do Campo elicited from a fearful client detailing manipulations of light and noise in the 16-cell brig unit in which Padilla was the only prisoner. He was deprived of any furnishing beyond a bare steel bunk and had no view outside his cell, obliterating all sense of time. A noxious odor pervaded the cell, he had neither reading material nor glasses, and electronically operated doors in the echoing cellblock were opened and shut at all hours, the defense reported.
The government has denied that Padilla was subjected to illegal forms of interrogation or treatment.
Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist on the Harvard Medical School faculty and veteran analyst of the effects of solitary confinement, submitted an evaluation on Padilla for the competency hearing but wasn’t called to testify because Cooke excluded the brig treatment issues. Grassian said he was convinced Cooke erred in deeming Padilla fit to stand trial.
“I believe that Padilla’s confinement, and probably his interrogations as well, have entirely crippled his ability to cooperate in his own defense, leaving his attorneys to try to ferret out information on their own,” Grassian said. “It has been enormously frustrating for them, and they have actually uncovered significant exculpatory information that Padilla could have given them had his mental state not been so severely impaired.”