The Not-So-Dirty, Not-So-Bomber Comes to Court
Nearly five years after he was nabbed at O'Hare Airport in Chicago and identified to the world as a "dirty-bomb" plotter by an over-caffeinated attorney general, Jose Padilla finally is on the cusp of facing a jury of his peers. Nearly five years after he was designated an "enemy combatant" by President Bush and held incommunicado and without charges until the Supreme Court essentially forced his release from military custody, the American people finally will begin to learn precisely how strong is the case against this eerie American man, this former street thug, who is now charged with participating not in a radiological bomb plot but in a far less nefarious terror conspiracy of which he was, even by the government's own disclosed evidence, sort of a bit player.
Jury selection in federal court in Miami begins Monday and it shapes up to be a fascinating component to this terror trial of the year. Do jurors remember John Ashcroft's hastily-arranged, nearly-hysterical, mid-day media opportunity from Russia-- via satellite-- in which he labeled Padilla as a "dirty bomb suspect"? Do they remember Padilla as the latest "face of terror" on the cover of the weekly newsmagazines? Do they remember the tribunes of our government telling us, in court and on the airwaves, that Padilla was too sinister and too important a terrorist to be allowed into the custody of our civilian courts?
And, if they do remember these things, are jurors somehow going to be able and willing to put aside those first impressions and judge Padilla solely upon the evidence and testimony that the feds are able to haul into court? In other words, is this trial a foregone conclusion, a show-trial, in which the result already has been determined by the pre-trial workup that has taken place over nearly half a decade? Or, conversely, has the government promised so much for so long about Padilla-- have the feds built him up to this point to near mythological stature among terror suspects-- that they are bound ultimately to disappoint jurors with the evidence they can muster?
Ask me in a month or so and I will have an answer for you. Right now, all I am willing to say about this curious event is that the minds-eye impression potential jurors have of Padilla is likely to be far darker than is the evidence against him. Having covered the Padilla story since its inception in May 2002 I eagerly await this trial not just because I want to finally see and evaluate for myself the evidence the feds say demonstrate that Padilla is more than just a misguided punk. I await it because it is a test for the government, too, of its allegations against Padilla, original and current, its over-the-top exhortations about him, original and current, and its strategy, original and current, of detaining U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants" and holding them without due process. For both Padilla and his lawyers, and for the government, it is finally put up or shut up time.
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