WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the government and reinstated a key terrorism charge against alleged Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla, paving the way for a trial that could bring the former Chicago gang member a life sentence.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed a lower court and ruled that the charge that Padilla and two co-defendants conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" individuals overseas did not duplicate other criminal counts in the indictment.
"Although they may appear to be nested within one another, each charge stands alone from the others," the appellate panel wrote.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami had ruled during the summer that three of the charges in the indictment were virtually identical and could subject the defendants to double jeopardy, or overlapping convictions and punishment for essentially the same criminal act.
"We are gratified by the 11th Circuit's swift decision and look forward to presenting the evidence at trial," U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said in a statement. He said Padilla and the other defendants have 21 days to appeal the decision.
A trial date has been set for April 16, although most participants in the case expect it to be delayed because of a series of legal and procedural maneuvers and appeals by prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Michael Caruso, a federal public defender representing Padilla, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Padilla, 36, is charged with participating in an alleged North American terrorist support cell that provided money, weapons and fighters for extremist Islamic causes in the Middle East and elsewhere. He has not been charged with any Al Qaeda-related activity, though federal authorities have publicly accused him of conspiring with senior Al Qaeda operatives to plot attacks within the United States.
After Padilla's arrest in May 2002, as he stepped off a plane in Chicago, then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said he was part of an unfolding plot to detonate a so-called dirty bomb, or a conventional explosive device that also contains radioactive materials.
President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant, and he was held without criminal charge for 3 1/2 years until he was added to the Miami case in late 2005.
Padilla and co-defendants Adham Amin Hassoun, 44, and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, 45, have pleaded not guilty. Padilla's lawyers say that he was tortured in custody, and that he suffers so badly from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result that he is not competent to stand trial. Federal prosecutors deny that, and the judge has ordered that Padilla undergo a mental competency exam.
In all, five defendants face various charges of conspiring to commit acts of murder, kidnapping and maiming outside of the United States and of providing material support or resources for terrorism from within the United States. Only Padilla, Hassoun and Jayyousi appealed Cooke's ruling.