Saturday, August 18, 2007

(Another) innocent black man goes to jail

As you may have heard, Padilla was convicted by a Federal Court on charges of terrorism. To me, one thing is certain about the case: the evidence that the US government abused Padilla's constitutional rights is stronger than the evidence of his supposed involvement in any terrorist conspiracy. Here is a defense attorney's summary of the Padilla case from the Washington Post:
Padilla is a U.S. citizen who was arrested in Chicago in May 2002, pursuant to a warrant to testify before a grand jury. . . . President Bush declared Padilla an "enemy combatant." At that point, Padilla was whisked out of the civilian justice system and imprisoned in a South Carolina military brig. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft held a news conference to announce that the government had thwarted a plot by Padilla to set off a radiological "dirty bomb" in an American city.
The government later dropped the dirty bomb accusation. The evidence against Padilla was flimsy. The prosecutors tried to freak out the jury by playing Bin Laden videos during his trial. The case suggests that all prosecutors need to do is whisper "terrorist" in the ears of jurors and conviction is assured. Especially if the defendant is a person of color -- like Padilla. More from the article:
The charges brought in Miami contained none of the allegations about the dirty-bomb plot, the apartment buildings or even Padilla's presence in Afghanistan in late 2001. Instead, the government alleged that Padilla had conspired in the 1990s to provide support to overseas jihadists in Bosnia and Chechnya. Commentators called even this weaker case notably thin, but Padilla was found guilty.
US commentators say that the verdict proves the US court system is capable of dealing with terrorists, and extra-constitutional measures -- such as Padilla was subjected to -- are unnecessary. Yet the only people who had been advocating the use of extra-constitutional measures against terror suspects were die hard supporters of the Bush White House. Their ideas didn't make any sense in the first place, so that they have been finally "proven" wrong is not interesting -- and certainly it's nothing to celebrate. To conclude that the verdict vindicates the US justice system is an abhorrent conclusion.

Perhaps the real lesson of this trial is something altogether more ominous: that no man can be assured of a fair trial in a US court today if the US government decides to paint you as "a terrorist." I say this because the evidence against Padilla was so scanty. How a jury found the man guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" is hard to fathom. But the American public may be so conditioned by Bush's fear-mongering about terror threats (echoed by the media), that juries have trouble looking at the evidence against a defendant in a terror case dispassionately.