Judge Rules Padilla Is Competent to Stand Trial

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

MIAMI, Feb. 28 -- A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Jose Padilla is competent to stand trial on terrorism charges, rejecting lawyers' allegations that torture inflicted during his military incarceration has rendered him psychologically unable to mount a defense.

The ruling leaves aside for now the question of whether Padilla, accused of being an al-Qaeda operative, was mistreated during his 3 1/2 -year confinement in the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., after being declared an "enemy combatant" by President Bush.

Instead, the ruling found that whether or not he was abused, Padilla is currently capable of understanding the legal proceedings and their consequences, and that he can assist his attorneys. That is enough under legal standards to find him fit for trial.

"This defendant is a knowing participant" in the proceedings, U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke said.

Neither the defense attorneys nor prosecutors would comment afterward.

In legal pleadings and an affidavit filed by Padilla's attorneys on his behalf, the defense has asserted that during his stay at the brig, the 36-year-old was subject to isolation in a 7-by-9-foot cell with no view to the outside world, was deprived of sleep, a clock and reading materials, and was hooded and forced to assume "stress positions" for long periods of time. He was also, they alleged, threatened with imminent execution.

While U.S. officials say Padilla was treated humanely, a pending defense motion asks that the charges against him be thrown out because of mistreatment.

"Through its illegal conduct, the government has forfeited its right to prosecute," according to the motion.

In ruling, Cooke said explicitly that the competency decision leaves open the questions raised by those allegations. "That discussion is for another day," she said.

The defense had argued that Padilla was unfit for trial because the alleged mistreatment made him too fearful or too distracted to assist in his own defense -- a defect that could render him legally incompetent.

Defense attorney Andrew Patel took the stand to testify that Padilla has consistently refused to review the taped conversations that are at the core of the prosecution case.

"We have gotten no useful information from Mr. Padilla, directly," he said.

A forensic psychiatrist and a forensic psychologist hired by the defense had depicted Padilla as "broken man" who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Questions about the brig provoked sweating and involuntary facial grimaces, they said.

The technical director for the brig, while denying any knowledge of physical abuse, testified that at times Padilla has been deprived of a clock, a mattress and windows, and that on two occasions he was weeping.

All in all, the defense argued, Padilla is now unable to assist his attorneys.

In her ruling, however, Cooke disagreed, citing both his courtroom demeanor -- he appears attentive -- and his role in signing an affidavit alleging the torture. A Bureau of Prisons psychologist who spoke with Padilla also noted that he seemed very knowledgeable about key developments in the case and could discuss them.

Padilla appears "keenly aware" of motions in court, Cooke said, and "clearly has the capacity to assist his attorneys."

Legal experts noted that it is very difficult for defendants to make the case that they are incompetent to stand trial.

"The hurdle that a defendant has to overcome in a competency hearing is very high," said Carl Tobias, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond who has studied terrorism cases since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "Those motions are rarely granted and it shouldn't be a surprise that it wasn't granted here."

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