The Padilla Case: More Bad Karma

(CBS)
Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
There always has been a sense of bad karma in the terror conspiracy trial of Jose Padilla, the man introduced to us all nearly five years ago as the "dirty bomb" suspect. Perhaps this is because Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was sent off first into legal limbo as an "enemy combatant" before being dumpedinto federal court in Miami. Perhaps it is because the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke already has expressed reservationsabout the government's case against Padilla and his two co-defendants. Perhaps it is because of the vast gulf between what the feds initially said about Padilla and what they now claim they can prove against him in court.

Whatever the case, the bad aura that surrounds the case hasn't gotten any better as opening statements grow near. Jury selection was completed Tuesday after what several reporters notedwas a particularly contentious voir direprocess. Five blacks, four whites and three Latinos now will sit in judgment upon Padilla—a reasonable cross-sample of south Florida's population and probably the best racial mix Padilla and his lawyers could have hoped for. Here is how Jay Weaver of the Miami Herald describedTuesday's final selection process:

Jury selection in the upcoming Miami trial of terror suspect Jose Padilla culminated Tuesday with federal prosecutors and defense attorneys doing more mudslinging than legal wrangling in choosing a dozen impartial jurors to hear the controversial case. The day was marked by raw exchanges about race, ethnicity, gender and religion, with each side accusing the other of discriminating against one class of people or another to gain an edge.
And here is how The New York Times' Abby Goodnough put it in her report:

Prosecutors complained Monday that the defense was trying to exclude from the jury white and Hispanic men, who are considered more likely to convict, while defense lawyers accused the government of trying to exclude blacks, who studies have shown frequently view criminal prosecutions with greater skepticism.
It sounds from these reports that it was a real dogfight inside that courtroom. And that's usually a sure sign of how the trial dynamic is likely to unfold between and among the lawyers unless the judge is able to reestablish control and decorum when the trial actually begins. It's a problem that goes beyond how the attorneys are acting because jurors, like anyone else, pick up on these currents of anger between trial participants and often allow their perceptions of that anger to cloud their judgment about the ultimate issues in the case.

So Judge Cooke has a daunting job ahead of her. She has to ensure not only that Padilla and his co-defendants receive a fair trial while federal prosecutors are allowed to introduce as much evidence as permitted against them. She also has to ensure that the rowdiness between the lawyers that marked jury selection goes away or at least is limited. Federal judges have extraordinary power within their courtrooms. Judge Cooke will have to exercise that power to ensure that the legal story of Jose Padilla ends with less chaos and confusion than it began.