FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — After defense assertions that terrorism suspect Jose Padilla is suffering from severe mental health problems, a federal judge in Miami agreed Monday to order a psychiatric evaluation of the accused Al Qaeda agent.
The examination will be conducted in coming weeks by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and marks the first step for District Judge Marcia Cooke in deciding whether Padilla, 36, is legally competent to stand trial, said two people involved in the case.
Under federal law, criminal suspects must understand the nature and consequences of the case against them and be able to assist in their defense to proceed to trial.
Two mental health experts concluded that Padilla suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his treatment and interrogations during 3 1/2 years in military custody, according to reports filed last week by his attorneys. Prosecutors dispute that Padilla was mistreated during his detention in a U.S. Navy brig in South Carolina. They asked Cooke last week to order a neutral psychiatric evaluation to determine whether questions exist regarding his competency to stand trial.
Padilla and two co-defendants are charged with being members of a terrorist cell that sent money, supplies and recruits to violent Islamist groups overseas. Padilla originally was accused of taking part in a plot to explode a radioactive or "dirty" bomb on U.S. soil before prosecutors decided to pursue the lesser charges. The alleged dirty bomb plot is not mentioned in the indictment.
The trial was scheduled to start next month but will probably be delayed because of the issues related to Padilla's mental health and a pending appeal over the dismissal of one of the government's main charges.
Padilla was arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and later designated an "enemy combatant." Defense attorneys contend that he was held in isolation for long periods of time, subjected to extremely cold temperatures, deprived of sleep and involuntarily drugged while in the brig.
Angela Hegarty, a psychiatrist hired by the defense, said Padilla demonstrated facial tics, disorientation and paranoid tendencies during 20 hours of interviews.
He is unable to assist his lawyers, she wrote, in part because he becomes "visibly terrified" at any suggestion that he watch video of his interrogation by U.S. officials at the brig.