Miami-Dade County

Convicted terror plotter from Broward County resentenced to 21 years in prison

Homeland Security officers deliver Jose Padilla from the Charleson, S.C., area Navy brig to Miami for trial on Jan. 5, 2006.
Homeland Security officers deliver Jose Padilla from the Charleson, S.C., area Navy brig to Miami for trial on Jan. 5, 2006. THE MIAMI HERALD

As his mother, brother and lawyer accused the U.S. government of torture, convicted al-Qaida recruit Jose Padilla said nothing as the one-time Broward County resident waited Tuesday for a Miami federal judge to give him a longer prison sentence.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke cut Padilla a break, of sorts, giving the one-time “enemy combatant” a new 21-year sentence rather than the 30-year term sought by federal prosecutors.

While tacking on an additional 3 1/2 years to his original sentence, Cooke acknowledged Padilla’s mistreatment in a South Carolina Naval brig where he was held after his arrest in 2002. “I was then, and am now, dismayed by the harshness of Mr. Padilla’s prior confinement,” said the judge, who was ordered by a federal appeals court to stiffen his sentence.

Both Padilla’s mother and brother spoke of his alleged mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government, saying he is so psychologically damaged he cannot communicate with anyone.

“Jose’s mind is gone already,” Estella Lebron told the judge. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to come back. ... I hope this never happens to another American citizen again.”

Padilla’s brother, Tomas Texidor, said he had looked up to Padilla as a “role model” and “father figure,” but now felt like he was living in a “bad dream” since his older brother’s imprisonment on terrorism charges.

“I have never seen a U.S. citizen go through this kind of treatment in his own country,” Texidor said. “The isolation itself is torture.”

Three years ago, the federal appeals court found that Cooke had not given enough weight to Padilla’s criminal history before he traveled overseas to train with the al-Qaida terrorist group in the run-up to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In 2008, the judge sentenced the 43-year-old U.S. citizen to nearly 17 1/2 years after his trial conviction of conspiring to provide material support to foreign terrorists.

In effect, the judge crafted a new sentence that added the detention time — 3 1/2 years — that Padilla had already served at the Naval brig in South Carolina after his arrest in 2002. Cooke had cut that time from his original prison sentence.

In the post-9/11 era, Padilla’s terrorism case ranks among the most notorious. He was among the first U.S. citizens to be detained as an enemy combatant without being charged by the Bush administration. He was eventually transferred from military custody to a civilian criminal trial in Miami federal court.

In early 2006, Padilla was flown in a military jet from South Carolina to Homestead Air Reserve Base, then taken by helicopter to Watson Island. With a Blackhawk copter flying cover, a convoy of U.S. marshals and Highway Patrol troopers raced him to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami.

His dramatic transfer came after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that Padilla — who federal officials say plotted with al-Qaida to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” somewhere on American soil — be released from the South Carolina Naval brig. Despite that notoriety, Padilla was never charged with the alleged domestic terrorism plot.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Padilla’s defense attorney argued that the former enemy combatant has been subject to isolation, torture and interrogation during his 12 years of military detention and federal imprisonment in the United States.

“He has sunk into a pit of hopelessness and despair,” Federal Public Defender Michael Caruso told the judge, as he asked for a 21-year sentence for Padilla. He faced the possibility of a 30-year prison term, which was sought by federal prosecutors Brian Frazier and Ricardo Del Toro.

Under a deal between both sides, the U.S. attorney's office agreed not to seek a life sentence for Padilla's 2007 conviction of providing material support to terrorists overseas, which is allowed under federal sentencing guidelines. In exchange, Padilla's attorney didn’t disclose any evidence obtained from a subpoena for government records of his detention in the South Carolina Naval brig.

Caruso asserted that Padilla was repeatedly tortured during interrogations and held in confinement at the brig. After his sentencing in Miami, Padilla was sent to the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., where he was held in isolation almost all day. Since the fall of 2012, he has been held at the Miami federal detention center awaiting his resentencing.

In 2011, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Padilla should not receive credit for the 3 1/2 years he had served in the brig. The appellate court said he should receive harsher punishment reflecting his extensive criminal record, and that Cooke “unreasonably discounted” Padilla's criminal history before lowering a potential 30-year-to-life sentence.

Padilla, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, was a former Chicago gang member with 17 arrests and a manslaughter conviction before moving to the Fort Lauderdale area and becoming a recruit for al-Qaida, according to federal prosecutors.