On Thursday a regular jury of 12 citizens in a federal court in Miami found Jose Padilla and two other members of his Florida-based terrorist cell guilty of providing material support to terrorists. This ruling came after he was held for 3 years without trial, sued to get the right to be tried as a US citizen in federal court and pursued that case until he was granted that right by the Supreme Court. Padilla’s pre-trial suits to avoid trial took two years to resolve and cost millions of dollars, ending with federap prosecutors taking the easy way out and persuing lesser charges of supporting terrorism rather than trying to connect the defendants to specific acts of terrorism. The trial iteself took 3 months and ended with a deliberation which lasted for only 11 hours and appears to have been subject to little debate by jurors faced with overwhelming evidence.
Although attention in the media focused on Padilla, the evidence against his co-conspirators Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi indicated that they played a much larger role in raising funds and recruiting for al Qaeda than Padilla who was more of a foot-soldier. Padilla was likely the most dangerous of the three, but ultimately less important as far as helping al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Hassoun worked with charities known to raise money to finance terrorism, like Benevolence International and personally paid for Padilla’s trips to the middle east to receive terrorist training. All three men should be sentenced next week with a potential sentence of as much as life in prison.
Taken with the Zacarias Moussoui case from last year, the Padilla case makes clear that it is possible for terrorists to receive fair trials in regular federal courts. It can be extremely expensive, but it is the only right way to try US citizens who are accused of terrorism by the federal government, as pointed out by Supreme Court Justice Scalia when he wrote in his dissent in the Hamdi case that when “the government accuses a citizen of waging war against it, our constitutional tradition has been to prosecute him in federal court for treason or some other crime.” Padilla may have been held for too long, but his swift and effective trial is a model which ought to be followed in the future.
Special tribunals may be appropriate for foreign nationals taken in acts of terrorism overseas or while they are in the US illegally, but whatever their actions, unless they renounce their citizenship, US citizens should not be held without due process or tried in anything other than a normal jury trial. Even in the case of foreign terrorist subjects, we ought to keep in mind the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” and speed up the process by which their status is resolved and they are brought to trial. Then we just have to figure out how to get their terror-shy home countries to take back the ones who are acquitted.