Is That a Zucchini in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Supporting Terrorism?


Today a federal jury begins deliberating on whether Jose Padilla, formerly an "unlawful enemy combatant" in military custody and now a criminal defendant, should be convicted of conspiring to "murder, kidnap, and maim" people in other countries. Unlike the jurors, I have not heard all the evidence, but my impression based on the press coverage is that the government has fallen short of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense, for what it's worth, chose not to submit any evidence or testimony.

The strongest evidence against Padilla is an Al Qaeda training camp application with his fingerprints on it that the prosecution says he signed under an alias. It seems pretty clear that Padilla did undergo some sort of Al Qaeda training, or at least that he tried to do so. But that in itself was not clearly a crime at the time he allegedly signed the application (which was found in Afghanistan in 2001). So the government instead has tried to connect him to a terrorist conspiracy involving two acquaintances who say they were only funding Muslim relief work in Kosovo, Chechnya, and Somalia. The line between helping oppressed Muslims and funding terrorism in such places is thin, and Padilla's connection to this relief work/terrorist conspiracy seems tenuous. The government's case depends heavily on accepting its interpretation of phone conversations involving Padilla's associates (and occasionally Padilla himself) that were secretly recorded between 1993 and 2001. In particular, to buy the government's story the jury has to accept its definition of "code words" used by Padilla's friends and its identification of Padilla with two "aliases" they mention. Still, given Padilla's Al Qaeda link, it seems likely the jury will convict him on at least some of the charges.

Addendum: As readers puzzled by the headline will see if they check out the second New York Times story, the prosecution said zucchini was code for weapons.