"It Was Not A Game, It Was Murder"

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com. He's in Miami this week, covering the Jose Padilla terror trial.
MIAMI- If you listened to prosecutor Brian Frazier begin to deliver the government's closing argument Monday morning in the Jose Padilla terror support and conspiracy trial, and you knew nothing about the facts or the law, you would have thought you had dropped in on a case tracking a crime that had left scores dead and wounded.

In just the first 15 minutes of his presentation alone, Frazier used the words "murder" and "Al Qaeda" over and over again. "Jose Padilla was a "mujahadeen recruit and an Al Qaeda trainee," Frazier started off, describing the junior partner in the alleged conspiracy as a young man "attended an Al Qaeda training camp to learn how to kill." The three defendants talked in code using sports analogies, the prosecutor said, and they used the word "football" when they really meant terror training. "But it was not a game, it was murder."

Actually, as Frazier eventually had to concede, it wasn't really murder. No one died as a result of the alleged conspiracy between the famous Padilla—once upon a time the so-called "dirty bomb" suspect and a national "face of terror"—and his two lesser- known co-defendants. No one was injured. There were no attempts to murder or injure. In fact, as I suspect we will soon hear from the defense attorneys, it isn't completely clear that the otherwise small men did anything more than to fantasize about doing big things.

Under the law, however, that doesn't matter. As Frazier told the panel, "you can find that the defendants are guilty even if they never killed or harmed anyone—under the law it is the illegal agreement that is the crime." That legal calculus—that low standard for crimes that bring possible life sentences-- is the good news for the feds and the bad news for each of the defendants. To keep with the sports analogy—it's sort of like a home-field advantage for the government.

Frazier spent a great deal of his time explaining to jurors how terror "support cells" operate—straight out of the terrorism "manual" that keeps cropping up in these terror law trials—and how the conduct of Padilla and Company tracked many of the instructions contained in Al Qaeda's dark tract. "They were disciplined. There were secretive. They were committed," he said, and "they applauded and praised killings abroad.

Padilla was so committed, Frazier added, that he became a "star recruit" for this particular South Florida terror cell. He knew what he was getting into, the prosecutor told the panel. He knew what his terror-camp training would be about; knew what it meant to run with this crowd; knew what were the goals and purposes and dreams and desires of his confederates. He applied to the terror camp in Afghanistan, Frazier said, and then he attended the camp for basic training on July 24, 2000. I'm not so sure the evidence backs him up on this but it sure makes for a seamless narrative.

And Osama bin Laden? Of course he was mentioned. What would a terror case in America these days be without his mention? Even though this case is not supposed to have anything to do with the terror attacks on America, bin Laden's name came up over and over again, too. Frazier kept referring to bin Laden's "signature" on a form allegedly linking the men to their training duties. These are jurors, remember, who a few months ago saw a videotape excerpt of an interview of bin Laden conducted by CNN about a decade ago.

So the "dirty bomber" turned "enemy combatant" has now morphed into a "star recruit" for Al Qaeda. Soon, defense attorneys will begin to poke holes in this theory. They will say their clients were part of a confederacy of dunces if they were part of any sort of confederacy at all. They will try to convince jurors that this was the 21st Century version of "The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight." But right now Frazier has jurors thinking about Padilla in terms any jury in America could understand: he might have been on the junior varsity but he was definitely part of the team.