The judge cited harsh military detention to justify a lighter term of 17 years in prison.
Jose Padilla, a former Taco Bell employee from south Florida who converted to Islam and attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, was sentenced Tuesday to 17 years and four months in prison for his role in what prosecutors say was a global conspiracy to wage violent jihad.
No evidence was presented at Mr. Padilla's four-month trial linking him to a specific violent act – either planned or carried out. But prosecutors said his attendance at the training camp demonstrated his intent to engage in terrorism. They called him a "trained Al Qaeda killer," and said life in prison was "the only appropriate punishment."
US District Judge Marcia Cooke disagreed, authorizing a substantial downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines that called for 30 years to life in prison.
She justified the lighter sentence in part because of Padilla's earlier detention without charge and severe interrogation as an enemy combatant in a South Carolina military prison.
"I do find that the conditions were so harsh for Mr. Padilla that they warrant consideration of the court's fashioning of a sentence in this case," Judge Cooke told the hushed courtroom.
The lighter sentence was a significant setback for federal prosecutors.
"The crimes here are serious," Cooke said. But she added, "There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, killed, or kidnapped anyone in the United States or elsewhere."
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