MIAMI — The terror trial of Jose Padilla reached a turning point in federal court Friday when Miami prosecutors rested their case against the former "enemy combatant" and two others charged with plotting to support terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
"The United States would rest its case in chief at this time," prosecutor Russell Killinger said after calling one final witness, an FBI linguist.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke gave a stern warning to the 12 Miami-Dade jurors not to talk about the case with anyone, nor to read or watch anything about it.
"You will have to be extra super-duper cautious," Cooke advised the jurors, instructing them to return on Thursday, when the defense will begin its case.
But first, on Tuesday, the three defense teams will ask Cooke to issue judgments of acquittal for their clients, claiming the prosecution's case lacked sufficient evidence. Cooke is not likely to grant their motions, setting the stage for the defense's case through August.
Since jury selection in early May, prosecutors have painted a provocative picture of the alleged South Florida-based cell, reframing its Muslim relief mission as a front for "violent jihad" to create Islamic states abroad.
In all, they called 22 witnesses and introduced some 300 exhibits of evidence, including 126 transcripts of government wiretaps of phone conversations involving the three defendants.
The presiding judge in the high-profile Miami case - while limiting references to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because the defendants were not involved in them - did allow prosecutors to show a decade-old CNN interview with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. It was the most controversial moment at trial.
Defense lawyers countered on cross-examination that their clients did not scheme to provide "material support" to terrorists, but rather tried to help persecuted Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, among other hot spots. They sought mistrials on a handful of occasions, to no avail.
During the past 10 weeks of trial, prosecutors spotlighted Padilla's suspected al-Qaida training camp application and FBI-wiretapped phone conversations of the cell's alleged ringleader, Adham Amin Hassoun, and his Muslim ally, Kifah Wael Jayyousi, both 45.
Although Padilla was not implicated as much as the other defendants in the tapped phone calls presented at trial, he did travel from the Fort Lauderdale area to Egypt in 1998 and kept in touch with Hassoun. Padilla, 36, allegedly filled out his Mujahedin application in Afghanistan two years later.
To make their conspiracy case against the three defendants, prosecutors must show that they agreed to provide aid in the form of propaganda, money or recruits to Islamic extremists overseas. Their toughest challenge, however, will be proving the most serious charge: Conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people abroad in the name of Islam.
During trial, prosecutors introduced evidence showing Jayyousi, a school administrator, published an Islamic newsletter, corresponded with al-Qaida operatives and raised almost $50,000 to buy satellite phones for Chechnyan rebels fighting Russian soldiers.
Prosecutors also showed Hassoun, a computer programmer, talking in suspected terrorism code with Jayyousi and another recruit, Mohamed Hesham Youssef, about jihad activities in Europe and Asia. Youssef, who was also indicted but is in custody in Egypt, told Hassoun on the phone that Padilla "entered into the area of Usama" in September 2000, when prosecutors allege the former Broward County resident trained with al-Qaida.
As for Padilla, his defense lawyers argued that the Muslim convert, who met Hassoun at a Sunrise mosque, traveled to the Middle East solely to study Arabic and the Koran. They claimed he did not fill out the Mujahedin application form, nor did he train with al-Qaida.
But early in the trial prosecutors unveiled Padilla's alleged Mujahedin application, which was obtained by the CIA from a suspected al-Qaida safe house after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in fall 2001. A CIA officer, who testified in disguise at trial, said he gave the five-page form written in Arabic to the FBI.
A Secret Service expert testified that he found seven "latent fingerprints" on the document that matched Padilla's prints.
Also, a convicted terrorist testified that he filled out an al-Qaida application and completed its training camp in Afghanistan - one year after Padilla allegedly committed the same crime.
Yahya Goba - one of six Yemeni Americans who were part of a New York cell that traveled to Afghanistan in May 2001 - said he went through military training at the al-Qaida camp "to prepare for jihad."
Padilla, a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent, carries the most notoriety of the three defendants because President Bush designated him as an "enemy combatant" in 2002 and ordered him held by the U.S. military until he was transferred to Miami last year to face charges.
If convicted, Padilla and the other defendants face up to life in prison.