PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge on Monday delayed the trial of two American women charged in a global terror plot, and a defense lawyer held out the possibility of a plea deal.
The judge declared the case complex and indefinitely postponed the trial of to give lawyers time to prepare.
Colleen LaRose, 46, of Pennsburg, and Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, 31, of Leadville, Colo., have pleaded not guilty to charges of helping foreign terror suspects intent on starting a holy war in Europe and South Asia. Paulin-Ramirez and her new Algerian husband were among a group of seven terror suspects rounded up in Ireland in March, hours before federal prosecutors announced that LaRose had been in custody in Pennsylvania since November.
"It's still a possibility that she will go to trial," said LaRose's lawyer, public defender Mark Wilson. "The other option is that they would both plead guilty."
LaRose, who allegedly used the online screen names "Jihad Jane" and "Fatima LaRose," had for at least a time cooperated with authorities after her arrest, a Pennsylvania congressman has said. She is facing a potential life sentence if convicted on a charge she had agreed to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had offended Muslims.
On Monday, the two women mostly avoided glancing at each other at their first joint court appearance.
LaRose smiled broadly at the public defenders assigned to her case as she entered the courtroom in a prison jumpsuit and with an untamed mane of long, bleached-blond hair. By contrast, Paulin-Ramirez sat dour-faced behind wire-framed glasses, her light brown hair braided down her back.
The indictment alleges that the twice-divorced LaRose, who cared for her boyfriend's elderly father in their small-town apartment, grew obsessed with radical Islamists online and agreed to raise funds for them and recruit others before moving overseas in the fall.
Among those she allegedly recruited was Paulin-Ramirez, a single mother who also spent long hours on the Internet before moving to Ireland with her 6-year-old son and marrying a terror suspect from Algeria the day she arrived.
She is now pregnant, and her son in protective custody.
"She wants him to have the opportunity to have as stress-free a life as he can, given his mom's situation," said her lawyer, Jeremy Ibrahim. "I have visited with him. We are thankful to the government for putting him in a very loving and safe and caring environment."
Paulin-Ramirez faces a maximum 15-year term if convicted of aiding terrorists.
The case involves a huge cache of computer evidence, some of which may be deemed classified because of national security concerns.
U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker will first screen the potentially classified evidence before deciding what must be turned over to the defense. Tucker plans to meet with prosecutors on May 19 and with both sides the next day.
LaRose answered a few routine questions from the judge, but Paulin-Ramirez declined to speak to avoid giving prosecutors a voice sample they could compare to any recordings they might have. Ibrahim, in what he called an "excess of caution," instead had her nod or shake her head.
The voluminous computer evidence takes up about a dozen hard drives, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in court.
The process of asking the judge to screen the potentially classified information allows prosecutors to be as candid as possible about the evidence, according to Ibrahim, a former Justice Department lawyer.
"At the end of the day, it's better for everyone," he said. "It takes away the specter of the government hiding anything."
Neither woman had any friends or family members in the courtroom.
Paulin-Ramirez's mother cannot afford to make the trip to Philadelphia, Ibrahim said. LaRose's former live-in boyfriend has said she skipped town without a word after his father died. He said he had no hint of her interest in Islam.