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Padilla not competent to stand trial, defense experts testify

Jose Padilla is accused of being part of a terror support cell. Jose Padilla is accused of being part of a terror support cell.

MIAMI -- Accused Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla suffers from intense stress and anxiety stemming from his isolated years in military custody and cannot adequately help his lawyers prepare for trial, two mental health experts for the defense testified yesterday.

Defense lawyers hope to delve more deeply into Padilla's treatment at a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., later in the federal hearing, when they are allowed to question brig officials directly involved in his custody. Those officials have never spoken publicly about the case, and the hearing will continue Monday.

"He is immobilized by his anxiety," said Patricia Zapf, a forensic psychologist who administered tests on Padilla in October. "He believes he will go back to the brig and he will die there."

The competency hearing before US District Judge Marcia Cooke on Padilla's competency is crucial in deciding whether he and two co defendants will stand trial in April.

Padilla, a 36-year-old US citizen, is charged with being part of a North American terror support cell that provided money, recruits, and supplies to Islamic extremists around the world. All three have pleaded not guilty and face possible life imprisonment.

The Bush administration initially asserted that Padilla was on an Al Qaeda mission to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a major US city when he was arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

He was designated an "enemy combatant" and was imprisoned by the military without criminal charges. But the dirty-bomb allegations are not part of the Miami case.

Padilla has contended in court filings that he was tortured at the brig, which US officials have denied. Prosecutors say he is competent for trial.

Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic neuropsychiatrist, said she concluded after examining and testing Padilla for more than 22 hours last fall that he is mentally incompetent for trial because he has post-traumatic stress disorder. Zapf reached the same diagnosis and recommended that Padilla receive treatment.

Padilla's symptoms are most acute when he is asked to talk about his 3 1/2 years in the brig, including interrogations techniques used on him, or to review evidence in his criminal case, including transcripts of intercepted telephone conversations, Hegarty said.

When Padilla is asked about his case or the brig, Zapf said, he becomes noticeably tense, begins to sweat, tries to change the subject, and rocks back and forth while hunched over. She said he was adamant that he did not want to testify in his own defense.

During cross-examination, prosecutor John Shipley pointed to a test administered by Hegarty in which Padilla scored zero on the portions indicating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those segments involved questions about flashbacks, nightmares, and depression, among other symptoms.

"Nothing in this test supports your diagnosis at all, isn't that correct?" Shipley asked.

"No," Hegarty replied, adding that the test answers were only one component of her decision.