Al-Qaida suspect found competent for federal trial

Padilla charged as terror cell member

March 01, 2007|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Miami -- Suspected al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla is competent to stand trial on terrorism charges because he understands the case against him and has shown himself capable of assisting in his defense, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke was a victory for the government, which has alleged in a three-count indictment that Padilla was part of a North American terror cell that recruited, trained and supported Islamic militants seeking to carry out acts of violence.

Anthony Natale, lead attorney on Padilla's four-man public defender team, had argued a few hours earlier at the conclusion of a four-day hearing that Cooke should find his client unfit to proceed. Natale urged Cooke to send Padilla to a mental hospital where he could be treated for what the defense claimed are debilitating anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The defense had contended Padilla, a 36-year-old former Chicago gang member, was mentally damaged by the three years he was held without charges at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. The lawyers say Padilla was deprived of human contact and subjected to dehumanizing stresses that amounted to torture.

Cooke prefaced her ruling by saying she might conduct another hearing at which she would take testimony on the torture allegations before Padilla's trial, set to begin April 16. The defense has moved for dismissal of the case on the grounds of "outrageous government conduct" during Padilla's time in the brig.

"That discussion is for another day," she said of the allegations of mistreatment.

The judge pointed to the October 2006 defense motion detailing the alleged abuses in military custody as evidence that the defendant comprehends the legal proceedings and can provide his lawyers meaningful information when he wants to.

"This defendant clearly has the capacity to assist his attorneys," she said.

She also appeared to fault Padilla for failing to cooperate fully with three mental health professionals who attempted to conduct mental fitness tests. Two experts hired by the defense diagnosed Padilla with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, while the court-ordered psychological evaluator said the defendant was fit for trial and that any failure to collaborate with his lawyers was "volitional."

Padilla, a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican ancestry who converted to Islam during a previous prison sentence, was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in May 2002, when he returned from at least six years abroad, including time in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft accused Padilla of being part of a plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on a U.S. city. President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant and he was sent to the brig where he reportedly endured months of sensory deprivation followed by alternating extremes of light and darkness, silence and noise.

As the U.S. Supreme Court was pondering a ruling on the extent of the president's powers to hold a U.S. citizen indefinitely without charges, the government indicted Padilla for conspiracy and material support to terrorism in November 2005. He was transferred two months later from the brig to the federal court system.

There has been no mention of the dirty bomb accusation in the civilian court procedures.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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