News Column

Convicted Terrorism Plotter Is Back in So. Florida

Nov. 29, 2012

Paula McMahon, Sun Sentinel

Convicted terrorism plotter Jose Padilla, who called Broward County home before becoming a trained al-Qaida fighter, won a small but personally significant round in his legal odyssey Wednesday in federal court in Miami.

A judge agreed to delay Padilla's resentencing date by about eight weeks, giving the 42-year-old his first chance in years to receive visits from his mother, two brothers and other family members who live in South Florida.

Padilla has been locked up in a variety of extremely restrictive conditions since being arrested in May 2002 and accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on U.S. soil. Though prosecutors dropped that allegation, he was eventually convicted of federal conspiracy and supporting terrorism charges after a lengthy trial in 2007 in Miami. He was originally sentenced to just over 17 years in prison in 2008, but a federal appeals court ruled that he should be resentenced, possibly to an even more punitive term. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear his appeal.

Padilla has spent the last 4 1/2 years in solitary confinement at the so-called Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo., where "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski is serving a life term. A few weeks ago, Padilla was moved to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami to allow his attorney, Federal Public Defender Michael Caruso, to meet with him and prepare for his resentencing.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke granted a request from Padilla's defense to postpone his resentencing hearing from Monday until Jan. 29.

During his years in the Colorado prison, Padilla has been kept in conditions so restrictive they would make Florida's Death Row look relatively good, local lawyers said. Padilla's family, including his mother, Estela Ortega Lebron, of Plantation, has only been able to visit him once in those 4 1/2 years. The family has limited financial means and its only trip was paid for by a public interest group, Caruso said.

Caruso argued that Padilla is in a bad mental state because of his lengthy years of isolation, which include a highly controversial period of more than three years when he was detained without charge in a Navy brig. Being in a prison closer to his family has allowed them to visit him more frequently and could improve his condition, the attorney said.

Padilla, whose hair is longer than in his arrest photo and who looked like he'd lost weight since his first sentencing, was handcuffed, shackled and dressed in beige prison scrubs. Security was tighter than usual in the courtroom, with about 10 marshals on hand.

Padilla sat quietly, his eyes cast downward during the entire hearing. He did not appear to interact with his lawyer. But at the end of the hearing, his mother called out "I love you" and one of his brothers flashed a V-sign at him.

Padilla looked over his shoulder at his family and a small smile transformed his features.

Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Padilla to life in prison at his first sentencing but have not yet said what they will recommend this time.

The judge bristled in court at federal prosecutors' suggestion that the resentencing was a "simple and straightforward task." She made it clear that she will be fully reconsidering all aspects of the sentencing recommendations from both sides.

Caruso, who wouldn't allow Padilla's family to comment, said he will continue to argue that Padilla has been treated more harshly than other people convicted of similar crimes.

"Since his arrest in May of 2002, the government has systematically attempted to destroy Jose by psychologically torturing him and imprisoning him under the severest of conditions," Caruso wrote in court documents. "Not surprisingly, this psychological torture has taken a toll on Jose."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier vehemently objected to Caruso's characterization of the government's treatment of Padilla, saying the prison in Colorado is "not some black hole of Calcutta."

Padilla lived in Broward County during the 1990s and said he converted to Islam while serving time in the county's jail system. He is a former Chicago gang member whose criminal history includes a murder conviction and some 17 arrests, prosecutors said. He trained overseas as a terrorist with al-Qaida the year before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The federal appeals court ruled last year that the "enemy combatant" had been wrongly sentenced and that the judge unreasonably discounted his criminal history when she sentenced him below the potential term of 30 years to life.

With the standard amount of time off for good behavior, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons calculates he would be released in January 2022 but that date will change after the judge makes her decision on the new punishment.



Source: (c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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