Jose Padilla, a onetime Chicago gang member, is best known for being accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb. Yet the criminal charges against him have nothing to do with that dramatic allegation, says USA Today. His nine-week trial in Miami, where the defense gets underway today, is the latest in a string of high-profile federal terrorism cases that started with sweeping accusations and ended in acquittals or convictions on lesser charges. If the jury convicts Padilla, it will be as a bit player in a murky plan to support unspecified terrorism activities overseas. “What we see time and again is a big press conference and Justice Department statements about how we’re prosecuting the war on terrorism, and then the cases either fizzle out or the charges are reduced to relatively minor guilty pleas,” says Georgetown University law Prof. David Cole.
The Justice Department says that of more than 400 people charged with terrorism-related offenses since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, more than half have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Many of those convictions were for lesser crimes, including immigration violations or lying to investigators. A “terrorist report card” from Center on Law and Security at the New York University Law School found that as of last summer, in 510 cases since 9/11 that the government said were terrorism-related, only 158 defendants have been prosecuted on charges of terrorism or giving material support to terrorism. The rest have been prosecuted on lesser charges, and no link to terrorism was proved in court. The report found a 29 percent conviction rate in terrorism prosecutions, compared with the Justice Department’s 93 percent conviction rate in other criminal prosecutions.