MIAMI — Jurors in the Jose Padilla terrorism trial will begin hearing evidence from the defense on Thursday after a federal judge rejected acquittal motions at a key juncture in the high-profile Miami case.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke on Tuesday denied bids by lawyers for Padilla and two other defendants to dismiss the terrorism conspiracy charges, claiming the government lacked sufficient evidence.
The defense teams argued that Padilla, suspected of training with al-Qaida, and his alleged handlers, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, were not involved in any conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people in jihad theaters overseas. They hope to portray their clients, using mainly expert witnesses, as humanitarian relief volunteers for persecuted Muslims.
But the judge said the government put on a compelling case since May, citing FBI-wiretapped phone conversations between the defendants and their use of coded language - including such words as "tourism" for terrorism.
"The defendants' intent is at issue, and that is something the jurors will have to find," Cooke said.
The dozen federal jurors must decide whether the defendants agreed to provide aid in the form of propaganda, money or recruits to Islamic extremists overseas, an offense that carries a 15-year prison term. The murder conspiracy charge, a tougher challenge for the prosecution, carries up to life imprisonment.
"There is a strong case to be made as to Padilla's recruitment, his travels to Afghanistan and his presence in the al-Qaida camp," prosecutor Brian Frazier said. "I think it is a tightly knit conspiracy - the thread of commonality is violent jihad."
Defense lawyers for all three defendants strongly denied any links to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.
They countered their clients were engaged in relief efforts for embattled Muslims in areas such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya - humanitarian missions distorted by prosecutors to imply the three men were supporting terrorism.