Judge says ex-Chicagoan's terror sentence too short

September 19, 2011 5:08:44 PM PDT
A federal appeals court dealt a stunning blow Monday to former Chicago gang member-turned-terrorist Jose Padilla. The ruling: His 17-year prison sentence is too short.

In this Intelligence Report: Padilla was planning a hometown attack.

Padilla was arrested at O'Hare Airport less than a year after 9/11, in June 2002. Not only was the nation still on edge, but federal law enforcement agencies were feeling their way through terrorism investigations. Padilla was their first big score. And Chicago had been his initial target.

When Padilla was arrested in 2002 at O'Hare he was returning from Pakistan. Federal authorities say he "intended to commit" a terrorist attack on Chicago or conduct surveillance for such an attack.

"Here is a person who unambiguously was interested in radiation weapons and terrorist activity and was in league with al-Qaida," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in June 2002.

According to Justice Department records, al-Qaida leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had personally directed Padilla to rent an apartment in Chicago and blow it up with a natural gas explosion or set fire to a hotel or gas station.

"We believe the threat of international terror is substantial and it remains. We do not believe that thousands, tens of thousands, were sent through the training camps for a very limited enterprise," said Attorney General John Ashcroft in June 2002.

The severity of that post-9/11 plot underlies Monday's Florida appellate decision throwing out Padilla's 17-year prison sentence because it is too short.

The divided three judge panel ruled that Padilla's sentence was unreasonable because it didn't reflect his criminal history of gang arrests and terrorist training and, therefore, doesn't account for his risk to society.

The sentence was based on the wrong factors and fails to protect the public from further terrorist crimes, said the court in its two to one decision.

Padilla will now face a new sentencing hearing, and the government will resharpen its argument from 2004, that the one-time Chicago street gang member is a universal danger.

"When Padilla stepped off the plane in Chicago in May 2002, he was a highly trained and fully equipped soldier of the enemy who had accepted his al-Qaida assignment to kill hundreds of people in apartment buildings," said Deputy Attorney General James Comey in June 2004.

The dissenting judge noted that Padilla wasn't given his Miranda rights at O'Hare when he was questioned and that the initial allegation of a radioactive "dirty bomb" plot went away.

Defense lawyers say they may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on their contention that Padilla was tortured and given LSD and other drugs including "truth serum."

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