U.S. "dirty bomber" stigma haunts Padilla trial
MIAMI (Reuters) - Five years after the U.S. attorney general announced on live television that Jose Padilla was a "known terrorist" plotting to set off a radioactive bomb, a federal court must find a jury willing to presume he is innocent.
The "dirty bomber" allegation made by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft when Padilla was arrested in 2002 never showed up in the formal charges brought against him after he had spent 3 1/2 years jailed in a military brig.
But Padilla's lawyers fear the stigma could taint jurors' view of the 36-year-old American whose trial begins on Monday.
"If you say 'dirty bomber' it rings the gong," one of Padilla's lawyers, Anthony Natale, said in court.
The court has already dismissed 180 of 550 jury candidates -- some because they said in questionnaires that memories of the September 11 attacks would prevent them from serving impartially in a terrorism case.
Padilla and his co-defendants, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, are accused of providing money and recruits to Islamist extremists and conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim people in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and other foreign nations.
They face life in prison if convicted of supporting terrorists overseas.
Lawyers will question potential jurors about their views of Muslims. Lawyers said in court that many of them showed "real animus" toward Padilla and toward Islam in the questionnaires.
"The jury selection process is going to be probably the most crucial aspect of the case," said William Swor, one of Jayyousi's attorneys.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke ordered that jurors' identities be kept secret and barred courtroom sketch artists from drawing their faces.
Padilla tried to challenge President George W. Bush's authority to hold him without charge as an "enemy combatant," and claimed he was tortured in a military prison before being charged in the civilian court.
Prosecutors denied Padilla was abused and the judge rejected his request to drop the charges due to "outrageous government conduct."
The judge set aside an unusually generous 20 minutes per juror for individual questioning about their biases and their recollection of media reports, and increased the number of jury candidates lawyers can dismiss without giving a reason.
Prosecutors said they were confident they could seat an impartial jury and a prominent trial consultant said there seemed to be enough safeguards in place to do that.
"If a prospective juror wants to stick up their hand and say, 'I think we ought to shoot them all right on the spot' ... I think the court's going to be very lenient letting those people express their views," said Philip Anthony of the Los Angeles firm DecisionQuest Inc. "Those folks will be gone."
He said his studies of more than 15,000 court cases over three decades suggested the public paid less attention to news than many assumed, and estimated no more than 25 percent would recognize Padilla's name.
Despite Michael Jackson's fame and the sensational coverage his child sexual molestation case received, the court questioned only about 150 prospective jurors before seating the panel that acquitted him, Anthony noted.
"I'm confident there's a group of people out there like that who have no idea who Padilla is or who have no idea what a dirty bomb is or isn't," Anthony said. "I imagine that's the group they're ultimately going to get to court."