MIAMI – A federal judge agreed Monday to order a mental evaluation assessing whether alleged Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla is competent to stand trial on charges of being part of a support cell for Islamic extremists around the world.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke said she would issue the order after prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that Padilla's competency to understand legal proceedings and assist his attorneys must be established before the case goes to trial.
"I think the judge wants to deal with the competency matter first," said Orlando do Campo, one of Padilla's court-appointed lawyers.
A psychiatrist and a psychologist hired by Padilla's attorneys both concluded that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental problems stemming largely from his 3 1/2 years in solitary confinement as an "enemy combatant" at a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.
Padilla, a 36-year-old U.S. citizen, also claims he was tortured while in Defense Department custody, a charge repeatedly denied by federal prosecutors and Pentagon officials. Padilla's lawyers have asked the judge to dismiss the charges against him because of alleged "outrageous government conduct" during his time in the brig.
The competency issue further jeopardizes the scheduled Jan. 22 trial date for Padilla and co-defendants Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi. All have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and material support charges.
The two main terrorism support charges against the three carry maximum prison sentences of 15 years each. Hassoun faces additional prison time if convicted on perjury and obstruction of justice counts against him alone.
Padilla, who was allegedly recruited by Hassoun to join Al Qaeda, was added to the case late last year amid a legal battle over President Bush's authority to hold him without charge as an enemy combatant. Padilla was originally arrested in 2002 on suspicion of plotting a radioactive "dirty bomb" attack inside the U.S., but the Miami charges do not mention that.
Cooke agreed to order the competency evaluation after meeting for more than an hour in private Monday with defense lawyers and prosecutors.
Brian Frazier, an assistant U.S. attorney, said Padilla would most likely be evaluated by a Bureau of Prisons mental health professional, who would then make a report to Cooke in the coming weeks.
"It will all be done internally," Frazier said.
It would then be up to the judge to decide whether to hold a full-blown competency hearing to compare that evaluation with the assessment by the defense's mental health experts. Those experts found numerous signs of mental problems, including paranoia, impaired reasoning, facial tics and "hypervigilant" behavior.
Cooke has previously said the trial will not begin until the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on her decision earlier this year to dismiss the key terrorism count — the one carrying a possible life sentence — in the case because it duplicates other charges in the same indictment. The appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on that issue Jan. 9.