Jose Padilla, a former Taco Bell employee from south Florida who converted to Islam and attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, was sentenced Tuesday to 17 years and four months in prison for his role in what prosecutors say was a global conspiracy to wage violent jihad.
No evidence was presented at Mr. Padilla's four-month trial linking him to a specific violent act – either planned or carried out. But prosecutors said his attendance at the training camp demonstrated his intent to engage in terrorism. They called him a "trained Al Qaeda killer," and said life in prison was "the only appropriate punishment."
US District Judge Marcia Cooke disagreed, authorizing a substantial downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines that called for 30 years to life in prison.
She justified the lighter sentence in part because of Padilla's earlier detention without charge and severe interrogation as an enemy combatant in a South Carolina military prison.
"I do find that the conditions were so harsh for Mr. Padilla that they warrant consideration of the court's fashioning of a sentence in this case," Judge Cooke told the hushed courtroom.
The lighter sentence was a significant setback for federal prosecutors.
"The crimes here are serious," Cooke said. But she added, "There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, killed, or kidnapped anyone in the United States or elsewhere."
The judge stressed that Padilla's sentence and those handed down for two codefendants would serve as a warning to others that support for violent activities overseas "will not be tolerated."
Despite Padilla's lower prison sentence, the three convictions in the case mark an important victory for US government officials working to stanch the flow of money and other support from America to various terror groups operating overseas, legal analysts say.
It puts individuals who may be sympathetic to Al Qaeda or other violent overseas groups on notice that the government will take aggressive action against those perceived to be helping America's armed enemies abroad.
But the Padilla case also represents a threat to civil liberties, according to defense lawyers and other analysts. If upheld on appeal, the case against Padilla and his two codefendants could empower federal prosecutors in the future to target outspoken American Muslims for their political advocacy in support of militant efforts in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Padilla, Mr. Jayyousi, and Adham Hassoun were convicted in August of participating in a US-based support cell for what prosecutors characterized as a wide-ranging militant Muslim conspiracy to wage religiously motivated terrorism in troubled areas around the world.
Mr. Hassoun and Jayyousi were found guilty of providing money, equipment, recruits, or other support to Muslim groups operating in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Padilla was identified in the conspiracy as a recruit who attended the training camp.
In addition to sentencing Padilla to 17 years in prison, Cooke sentenced Hassoun to 15 years and eight months, and Jayyousi to 12 years and eight months.
Defense lawyers had argued in the trial and during a seven-day sentencing hearing that prosecutors were relying on an overly broad reading of murder-conspiracy and material-support laws.
Lawyers for Hassoun and Jayyousi said their clients were motivated by a desire to send humanitarian aid to Muslims under attack overseas. Padilla's lawyer said his client traveled to the Middle East to study Islam and learn Arabic. He said the government presented no evidence of Padilla's intent to support violent jihad, or participate in it.
Padilla's long legal ordeal began in June 2002, when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in a press conference that American officials had foiled a plot to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in an American city. President Bush ordered Padilla, a US citizen, to be held without charge as an enemy combatant. Padilla was imprisoned for 3-1/2 years in a military brig in South Carolina where he was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including extreme isolation and sensory deprivation. Mental-health experts who have examined Padilla say he is suffering from significant psychological damage from his treatment in the brig.
Lawyers challenged the constitutionality of Padilla's military detention. They argued the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. But in 2004 the high court dodged the central issue, handing down a procedural ruling that required the lawyers to relitigate their case from the beginning in South Carolina.
A year and a half later, when it appeared that a sympathetic Supreme Court was about to take up Padilla's case a second time, the Justice Department shifted him from military custody into the criminal-justice system on terror-conspiracy charges. The move mooted Padilla's constitutional challenge.
It also prevented the courts from examining the legality of the interrogation techniques that had been used against Padilla in the brig. Lawyers in Miami appointed to represent Padilla in the criminal case charged in a pretrial motion that Padilla had been tortured. But Cooke declined to examine the torture allegation.
At trial, Padilla's lawyers tried to emphasize what they said was a lack of evidence linking their client to terrorism.
Prosecutors did not attempt to use any information obtained from Padilla during his brig interrogation. Had they done so it would have required judicial examination of interrogation techniques used against Padilla. US officials have backed away from the "dirty bomb" allegations. Some have suggested instead that Padilla was plotting to blow up occupied apartment buildings. But prosecutors in the Miami trial presented no evidence of Padilla's involvement in any specific terror plot.
Although Padilla's prison sentence ends one chapter of the Padilla saga, Padilla's story is far from over.
Despite the conviction in Miami, lawyers have filed civil lawsuits in South Carolina and California seeking to hold current and former Bush administration officials legally accountable for what they charge were violations of Padilla's civil and constitutional rights during his imprisonment in the brig.
In addition, all three defendants in the Miami case are expected to appeal both their convictions and their sentences.
Prosecutors objected to portions of Cooke's sentencing decisions, but they did not announce whether they will appeal the sentences.