Padilla is called unfit to stand trial

Terror suspect mentally damaged, defense experts say

February 23, 2007|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- Two forensic psychology experts testified yesterday that Jose Padilla, who is alleged to be an al-Qaida accomplice,suffered mental damage during his 3 1/2 years in U.S. military custody and is unfit to stand trial on terrorism charges.

Testing and evaluation of the 36-year-old former Chicago gang member revealed "strong indication of cognitive impairment" and a 98 percent probability of "brain injury," said Patricia Zapf, a clinical forensic psychologist and associate professor at City University of New York, who was called as a defense witness.

"I believe he is not competent to proceed, that he is not fit to stand trial," Zapf testified.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke scheduled the competency hearing after Padilla's defense attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case because of "outrageous government conduct" that they say amounted to torture. Padilla's trial is scheduled to begin April 16.

Forensic neuro-psychiatrist Angela Hegarty told the court that Padilla wasn't competent to assist in his own defense because he exhibits profound anxiety and "shuts down" at any mention of his treatment at the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.

Both defense experts diagnosed Padilla with post-traumatic stress disorder and acute anxiety, which they attribute to his prolonged isolation and treatment at the Charleston brig. Padilla, shackled and dressed in a tan cotton jailhouse tunic and trousers, sat impassively throughout the day's proceedings. His only show of emotion was a wave and smile to his mother, who was seated in the back of the courtroom.

Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in May 2002 upon his return from Pakistan on suspicion of having plotted with other terror suspects to unleash a "dirty bomb" on an unnamed U.S. city.

President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant, and he was held in the brig without charges until late 2005. The government then moved the case to the federal court system with an indictment alleging Padilla was part of a North American terror cell providing material assistance to Islamic extremists abroad.

Lead defense attorney Anthony Natale has called mental health professionals and interrogation personnel from the brig staff to testify to the conditions in which Padilla was held. Testimony from the brig personnel, expected when proceedings resume Monday, could shed light on the military's controversial and secretive practices in getting terror suspects to disclose incriminating information.

A Bureau of Prisons psychological evaluator, Rodolfo Buigas, is expected to testify for the prosecution that Padilla is competent to stand trial.

Hegarty, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, said Padilla suffers from a form of Stockholm Syndrome in which a captive identifies with his aggressors because of a perception that they control his fate.

"When you are helpless and dependent on an all-powerful group, it takes away your anxiety when you line up with them," she said, recalling instances during her 22 hours of discussion with Padilla when he would object to contradicting the government for fear of reprisals.

"He thought he would go back to the brig and that he would die there," Zapf said. "He's very much living in the present. He doesn't want to talk about the past or think about the future."

Any attempts to get Padilla to discuss his custody left the defendant "immobilized by his anxiety," Zapf said.

Both witnesses reported observing facial tics, flushing, perspiration and evasion of all questions relating to his solitary confinement. Defense attorneys say he was subjected to extreme temperatures and noise, fed LSD and other drugs and made to endure hours of interrogation shackled in "stress positions."

Both also denied that Padilla was engaging in "malingering" or the deliberate feigning of psychological problems with the objective of evading prosecution.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley attempted to discredit Hegarty's post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis by pointing out that Padilla's score on the segment of a standardized mental-health test designed to detect symptoms of the disorder was "a perfect zero."

But Hegarty countered that visible symptoms of anxiety as well as nightmares, depression and hallucination have been observed in the defendant, leading her to conclude he was exhibiting "minimalization" or denial, in a classic indication of the disorder.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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