Trying a High-Profile Case as an Assistant U.S. Attorney: A Personal Perspective on the Jose Padilla Trial

February 5, 2008Duke Law News

Feb. 5, 2008 ― Duke Law students got an insider’s perspective on the federal prosecution of Jose Padilla on Feb. 4. John Shipley ’95, an assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of Florida, prosecuted Padilla during his 2007 trial on terrorism-related charges. After a four-month trial, the jury took just over a day to convict Padilla and two co-defendants of conspiracy to murder and providing material support to terrorists. The court ultimately sentenced Padilla to more than 17 years in federal prison.

An American citizen who converted to Islam, Padilla was first detained at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in May 2002 on a material witness warrant, suspected of planning to detonate a so-called “dirty bomb” in the United States. Designated an enemy combatant by President Bush and transferred to military custody in June 2002, Padilla was indicted on federal criminal charges in November 2005. In January 2006 he was transferred to a federal prison in Miami in order to face criminal conspiracy charges, along with other defendants.

“There was an extraordinary level of national and international media coverage throughout the case because of Padilla’s historically unprecedented detention as an enemy combatant,” said Shipley, who focused his remarks on the impact the intense media interest had on the trial. “People had strong feelings about his time in detention before he entered the criminal justice system. It was always hard to see him simply as a party to a criminal conspiracy, and made trying the case that much more difficult.”

Jury selection, alone, took a full month, Shipley recalled. Prospective jurors had to complete a 25-page questionnaire that explored their feelings about Islam and Islamic groups, and their thoughts on who was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Noting that the convictions of Padilla and his co-defendants “came as a surprise to a lot of people,” Shipley cautioned students to be skeptical of media coverage of high-profile trials. “The dynamic of how evidence is received in the courtroom never gets translated into what you read,” he said. “As an attorney, you can gauge when something has an impact. Journalists might miss that, or might not be attuned to why it was effective.”

Shipley said one such instance occurred when the prosecution introduced into evidence a binder of documents from an Al Qaeda training camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It included Padilla’s highly detailed application for admission to the training camp, one that did not use his real name, but outlined his unique characteristics, his American citizenship and Spanish fluency among them.

“We got the binder admitted into evidence and then had the witness walk it down to show it to the jury,” said Shipley. “The jurors were clearly fascinated by what was in this binder ― it helped make what we were talking about ‘real’ for them. But the jurors’ reaction never made it into a news story. Those kinds of things don’t translate well to coverage or media reports about a case.”

Having returned to the U.S. Attorney’s office to work on the Padilla prosecution after a stint in private practice, Shipley expressed his satisfaction with his choice. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “And it’s a thrill to be able to stand up when you have a case you believe in ― when the case is righteous and you’ve done your job ― and say ‘I represent the United States.’ This is sophisticated and interesting work that I find extremely satisfying. It’s always a challenge to stand up and prove a case to a jury.” Doing so in South Florida, with its ethically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse population that feeds the jury pool just adds to the challenge, he said. “You never know what’s going to happen. That’s one of the things that makes it fun.”

Shipley's lunchtime address was sponsored by the Program in Public Law.

Other News