US judge rules Stanford competent to stand trial

  • Business
  • Saturday, 24 Dec 2011

HOUSTON: Financier Allen Stanford was judged mentally fit to stand trial by a federal judge, setting the stage for a trial next year in one of the biggest whitecollar fraud cases since Bernard Madoff.

Stanford, 61, is accused of operating a US$7bil Ponzi scheme that bilked investors throughout the United States and Latin America.

He has been in federal custody since his arrest in June 2009 after being considered a flight risk.

US District Judge David Hittner in Houston said a “preponderance of evidence” presented in a three-day hearing convinced him Stanford was capable of helping his lawyers prepare for trial.

Lawyers for Stanford argued unsuccessfully that their client suffers from a lasting brain injury from a jailhouse attack in September 2009, serious depression, and said drugs administered after the brain injury had impaired his memory.

Prosecutors contended Stanford exaggerated his amnesia and they wanted his trial to start as scheduled in January.

Stanford looked back and waved at his mother, 81-year-old Sammie Stanford, as he was taken from the courtroom after the judge read his brief order.

Hittner said he would rule next week on a defence motion to delay the beginning of Stanford's trial for four months.

Stanford, who once ran the Stanford Financial Group and owned luxury homes in the Caribbean, Houston and Miami, was indicted on charges of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. He pleaded not guilty.

He is accused of running a Ponzi scheme involving the sale of fraudulent certificates of deposit issued by his offshore bank in Antigua. A Ponzi scheme is a fraud in which existing investors are paid with money from newer ones.

Hittner presided over three days of testimony on Stanford's competency after Stanford was treated for more than eight months at a prison hospital in North Carolina, where he was weaned off anti-anxiety medication and underwent psychological testing.

“Stanford doesn't want to fight,” assistant US attorney Gregg Costa said in his closing statements on Thursday. “He wants to con his way out of this case just like he conned investors out of their money for 20 years.”

Doctors at the North Carolina facility found Stanford had “no mental illness which would interfere with his ability to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defence,” according to a report to Hittner.

“I see no brain injury that stands in the way of his standing trial,” Dr Robert Cochrane, Stanford's primary evaluator at the Butner federal prison hospital, testified.

Witnesses for Stanford, however, said doctors at the federal facility downplayed the severity of Stanford's brain injury and mental problems.

They said he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and insomnia, among other problems, that would make it hard for him to concentrate, analyse information or testify in his own behalf.

“The clinical diagnosis is very important to treatment decision as well as legal decisions such as in this court,” said Dr David Axelrad, a forensic psychiatrist testifying for Stanford.

His lawyers said he would be unable to help them analyse the massive amount of information related to his investment business.

“He can't get on the witness stand,” Ali Fazel, a Stanford lawyer, told the judge. “The fundamental right he has, he doesn't have the ability to do.”

After the ruling, Stanford lawyer Robert Scardino declined to comment on Hittner's decision, citing a gag order.

“We will continue to get ready for trial,” Scardino said. - Reuters

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