A federal appeals court on Tuesday reinstated a key terrorism charge, the only one carrying a potential life sentence, against alleged al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with federal prosecutors in Miami that the charge that the U.S. citizen and his two co-defendants conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas did not duplicate other counts in the indictment.
The Atlanta-based court reversed a decision last summer by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, who said the three charges in the indictment contained nearly identical elements and could subject the defendants to extra punishment for the same act, violating protections against double jeopardy.
Padilla was arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, with the government claiming he was plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a major U.S. city. President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant, and he was held without criminal charge for 3 1/2 years until he was added in late 2005 to the Miami case. The "dirty bomb" allegations are not part of the Miami indictment.
Although defense attorneys may file a challenge, Tuesday's ruling brings the case a step closer to trial as scheduled April 16. The appeals court had agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis after Cooke said she would not begin jury selection until the issue was settled.
"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.
Defense attorneys have 21 days to ask the panel to rehear the case or request that the full appeals court take it up. Lawyers for Padilla and his co-defendants did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The other two main terrorism support charges against Padilla and his co-defendants carry maximum prison sentences of 15 years each.
Pleaded not guilty
Padilla, 36, is charged with being part of a North American terror support cell that provided personnel, materiel and money to extremist Islamic causes. He and his co-defendants — Adham Amin Hassoun, 44, and 45-year-old Kifah Wael Jayyousi — have pleaded not guilty.
Padilla claims he was tortured in custody, and his lawyers say he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that raises questions about his competence for trial.
Federal officials deny the torture allegations, but the judge ordered a competency exam and expects results next month.