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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Judge: Bronx Terror Plot Defendant Faking Illness

NEW YORK – A defendant in a terrorism trial who claims he sees ghosts, dead people and even the Virgin Mary is faking mental illness, a judge concluded Tuesday as she ordered a resumption of the trial of four men accused of plotting to blow up Bronx synagogues and military planes in Newburgh.

U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon made the ruling concerning 28-year-old Laguerre Payen, who sat in court chained to a wheelchair with handcuffs and shackles.

But it remained unclear whether the trial will proceed Wednesday with or without him. Lawyers for the other three defendants said they would prefer to proceed without Payen in the courtroom so that a mistrial could not occur if he acts up.

“I’m torn about exactly what to do,” McMahon conceded. “I don’t want a mistrial. Nobody wants that.”

She spoke to Payen even as he appeared not to be listening.

“Mr. Payen, I am, as you know, convinced that you are lingering, as has been your habit. … You are in fact making a spectacle of yourself in the courtroom,” she said, before adding: “But, I have to tell you Mr. Payen, there is no way that you’re not going to be tried.”

The judge noted that Payen had dodged trial after an arrest seven years ago in another case by being found incompetent to stand trial, only to exhibit no symptoms of psychiatric disorder when he arrived at a mental health facility.

She also credited a report that a fellow inmate housed with Payen once said Payen had counseled him on how to fake mental illness.

“For now, I am convinced quite frankly beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Payen is just faking that way,” she said the defendant, who was born in Haiti and came to the United States at age 8.

Elissa Miller, the chief psychologist at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Payen is housed, testified earlier that mental health workers at the lower Manhattan federal lockup had concerns that Payen might be faking mental illnesses.

She said he sometimes would be chatting, joking, laughing and being social with inmates just before he appeared unresponsive in a visit with a mental health professional.

She called his reported visual hallucinations “very unlikely.”

She said they included “seeing fogs, lights, the Virgin Mary, ghosts, dead people, bugs crawling on him and people demanding to play chess.”

Miller added: “Some of these symptoms are improbable and they’re inconsistent.”

On Monday night, Payen was seen banging his head lightly against the metal in his cell, Miller said.

She said he was lying in the corner of his cell on Tuesday morning with his smock over him and he had urinated in his cell.

His lawyer, Samuel Braverman, asked and received permission to have another psychologist examine him.

Payen’s lawyers have said he is schizophrenic and bipolar and has a history of treatment for mental illness.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David A. Raskin called him “a faker.”

“He faked a seizure just two days ago. Faked it,” Raskin said.

Defense lawyer Mark Gombiner, a lawyer for one of the other defendants in the case, asked that Payen be tried separately.

“I think we’re being held hostage to Mr. Payen’s behavior,” he said. “He is making, although silently, a spectacle out of himself.”

He said there was a serious risk of entirely disrupting the trial, which has been interrupted while the government’s star witness has been waiting to resume his testimony.

“There are some bells that can’t be unrung,” Gombiner said.

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