Padilla Case Trudges Toward Trial

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Jury selection begins next week at the trial of terrorism suspect Jose Padilla, nearly five years after his arrest. The case has seen so much maneuvering that the judge has asked attorneys to stop filing motions and get going.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, the case of accused al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla is set to go to trial. Padilla wanted the charges dismissed because he says he was tortured. But today a judge said no. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Jose Padilla is charged along with two other defendants with providing support for terrorist activities overseas in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. A charge he's not facing is the one publicized by Attorney General John Ashcroft in June of 2002, when Padilla, also known as Abdullah al-Muhajir, was arrested.

Mr. JOHN ASHCROFT (Former U.S. Attorney General): In apprehending al-Muhajir as he sought entry into the United States, we have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb.

ALLEN: That charge was quietly dropped when Padilla was added to an already existing indictment in federal district court in Florida, which named two other men, Adham Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, with supporting terrorism and conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim persons in a foreign country.

That charge carries a potential life sentence. In nearly two years of pre-trial activity, there have been dozens of hearings, many of them dealing with classified material, and therefore closed to the media and the public.

Also, several hundred motions have been filed, a number that has overwhelmed the court. In an order filed yesterday, federal judge Marcia Cooke rejected an important defense motion that Padilla's case should be dismissed because of the extreme conditions in which he was held during the three and a half years he was in military custody, treatment the defense said amounted to torture.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, says that leaves some other important motions still on the table, including one that seeks to sever the cases of the defendants, forcing the government to try the three men separately.

Professor CARL TOBIAS (University of Richmond): And so there are some big motions that are still outstanding, but I know the judge has been quite diligent in trying to move this case to trial. But I suppose it could be postponed or she could even seat the jury and resolve some of these motions on the way.

ALLEN: Judge Cooke yesterday worked with attorneys to develop procedures that would seat a jury that has not been prejudiced by all the pre-trial coverage Padilla has received. She agreed to give defense attorneys more preemptory challenges than usual for dismissing prospective jurors. Law professor Tobias says other recent cases show that with precautions, an impartial jury can be seated.

Prof. TOBIAS: Probably the most direct analogy would be the Musawi case, which was in the Eastern District of Virginia. And then recently, a little different context, the Lewis Libby trial and judges in both those cases were extraordinarily careful about selection of the jury.

ALLEN: And also, Tobias notes, careful about the jury's access to news accounts while the trials were going on. But Padilla's defense team is clearly worried, not just about news coverage but also about how the case was outlined for the public by Attorney General Ashcroft and by President Bush.

One of Padilla's lawyers, assistant federal defender Anthony Natale, yesterday said the defense needs to closely question perspective jurors to determine what exactly they think they know about Padilla and the charges he faces. We've done studies, he told the court, and they show people might not recognize the name Padilla, but if you say dirty bomber, it rings a gong. Those are issues likely to resurface when jury selection begins Monday.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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