As two expert witnesses described her son, an alleged al Qaeda operative, as mentally unfit to stand trial, Estela Ortega-Lebron was having a hard time.
"I'm nervous, like any mother," Ortega-Lebron whispered to me as court was about to convene for a federal court hearing on his competence. She sat in the third row of the gallery, directly behind her son, who was flanked by two of his four defense lawyers.
"They mistreated him for five years," she said. "They treated him like a dog."
When Padilla walked into court Thursday, his legs shackled but his arms free, he turned around, searching for his mother, established eye contact with her, smiled and waved. She smiled and waved back. The silent call and response were repeated several times throughout that day-long hearing.
"We have human rights. We have to go by the Constitution," Ortega-Lebron said. "My son has rights."
Padilla's rights – to an attorney, to challenge his detention, to a fair trial – have been in limbo for most of the five years he has spent as a prisoner – an American citizen caught up in a new legal strategy in the war on terrorism.
After announcing to the world in the spring of 2002 that Padilla conspired with al Qaeda in the months after the September 11, 2001, hijacking attacks to assemble and detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in the United States, the Bush Administration treated him as a military prisoner. Padilla was labeled an "enemy combatant" and locked up in a South Carolina naval brig: isolated and incommunicado, denied access to anyone but his guards and interrogators.
"They say he is a terrorist," I tell her.
"Well, let's prove it. Show me the money. Show me proof," she says. "They don't have a strong case."
Padilla looks slightly different than the familiar passport photo image that has been republished and rebroadcast around the world. He wears glasses now and sports a thin mustache. His defense team portrays him as traumatized by his military detention.
The main issue before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke is not whether Padilla is sane, but whether he can assist his lawyers in mounting their defense against charges that he belonged in the 1990's to a North American Muslim extremist "jihad" cell bent on killing people.
Two defense-hired doctors believe he is not. But prosecutors contend Padilla understands what is happening in the case and suggest he is "malingering," or in other words, faking symptoms so he does not have to face a trial, which is now scheduled for April
"Mr. Padilla is very anxious about appearing crazy," Dr. Angela Hegarty testified.
After Padilla was moved to Miami in November 2005, Hegarty spent 22 hours with Padilla, but none since last September.
She said he rocks back and forth in his chair, has involuntary facial ticks, breaks out in sweat, and verbally shuts down when asked to discuss this three-and-half years in the naval brig or his telephone conversations the government wiretapped. "Please, please, please," he begged Hegarty in one session, "Don't make me do this."
In a one sentence affidavit, Padilla asserts that allegations of abuse at the hands of his military captors are true. His lawyers say Padilla was consistently deprived of sleep, reading materials, and any companionship, always eating alone in his cell, his only respite a few hours of recreation a week in an outdoor cage. He was otherwise shielded from daylight, subjected to harsh lights 24/7, bombarded with heat and cold air and noxious fumes, according to court papers.
Dr. Hegarty diagnoses Padilla as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with a small case of Stockholm Syndrome, meaning, in refusing to cooperate with his attorneys, Padilla identifies more with his captors and worries the legal proceedings are unfair to the government.
"He lacks the capacity to assist counsel in this case," Hegarty said, adding that his current conditions of confinement in the high security unit of Miami's federal detention center – near total isolation, sensory deprivation, and lack of privacy – "exacerbate" the problems.
That diagnosis is echoed by Dr. Patricia Zapf, a clinical forensic psychologist who developed the standard test used to determine mental fitness for trial and examined Padilla last October.
"He was convinced he would go back to the brig... whether he was found guilty or not guilty... and he would die there," Zapf said.
"It doesn't matter," Padilla told her, "my fate's been decided."
Zapf told the court her tests of Padilla found indications of "cognitive impairment" and even "brain injury."
"He is immobilized by his anxiety," Dr. Zapf said. When she said further examination of the defendant is needed, Padilla started shaking his head.
"He was isolated for so many years. I mean, I was expecting this," Padilla's mother says.
When the mental competency hearing continues next week, staff members from the Charleston brig are expected to take the stand and explain for the first time in public the conditions of Padilla's controversial confinement.