Imelda Marcos, who had spent some of the previous night considering family advice to dismiss her flamboyant defense attorney, collapsed in a federal courtroom Thursday morning after coughing up blood and was taken to a hospital.
The former Philippine first lady's condition was listed as stable and not life-threatening. A hospital spokesman said tests found evidence of erosive gastritis, or bleeding in the stomach lining.
It was the latest dramatic turn in the fraud and racketeering trial of Mrs. Marcos, 60, who last month became emotionally distraught on two occasions and suffered episodes of what her doctors called "dangerously high blood pressure."
On Thursday morning, Mrs. Marcos had appeared for trial after a nearly sleepless night and over the objections of doctors and some of her attorneys, who felt she was too ill to proceed.
During the trial session she began to cough into her handkerchief and then slumped forward in her chair. She was carried out of the courthouse on a stretcher, wearing an oxygen mask. Dr. David Case, Mrs. Marcos' personal physician, said she had suffered stomach pains and had vomited blood clots.
The Times has learned that in an informal meeting between lawyers and the judge prior to Thursday's morning session, Mrs. Marcos' own three-member defense team apparently disagreed among themselves about whether the trial should be delayed.
According to one of those present in the robing room of U.S. Dist. Judge John F. Keenan, the judge asked to speak with Mrs. Marcos privately to assure himself that she was well enough to proceed, but the request was blocked by her lead attorney, Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence.
"Spence said, 'Well, she wants to go on, so we want to go on,' " a source in the robing room recalled, adding that the decision appeared to trouble other members of the defense team and the judge.
Mrs. Marcos is being tried on charges that she and her late husband, former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, conspired to buy New York real estate, art and jewelry with hundreds of millions of dollars looted from their homeland.
The Times reported in Thursday's editions that a major schism has developed within the defense camp over Spence's conduct of the case. Members of the Marcos family have advocated replacing the famous attorney with long-time Marcos lawyer John Bartko of San Francisco, who has acted as Spence's assistant throughout the trial.
Mrs. Marcos' collapse, coming barely an hour after other members of the defense team had shown frustration at Spence's reluctance to press for a delay, appeared to add to Spence's problems with the family and fellow defense counsel.
Late Thursday, Mrs. Marcos' condition was reportedly improving at New York Hospital, where she was expected to remain through the weekend. A hospital spokesman said that she would be treated with intravenous medication "for several days" and that the affected area was limited to the lining of the lower portion of her stomach.
"It could be stress related," conceded Case, who has been treating Mrs. Marcos for high blood pressure.
For more than a month Mrs. Marcos has been wearing a portable heart monitor, strapped to her arm, that periodically measures her pulse rate and blood pressure. Doctors said Thursday's seizure was unrelated to her blood pressure problems.
Sources close to the family told The Times that Mrs. Marcos had gotten little sleep Wednesday night, after a series of late-evening conferences with attorneys, her children and her closest personal advisers to consider various options--including replacement of her lead attorney.
Spence had been harshly admonished for 20 minutes on Wednesday by Judge Keenan, who angrily warned the defense lawyer, in front of the jury, that his courtroom conduct could conceivably harm his own client. The judge accused Spence of making "misleading statements in front of the jury," and Keenan appeared to threaten Spence with contempt action if it happened again.
An apologetic Spence at first moved for a mistrial, then withdrew the motion.
The Wyoming attorney, who is noted for taking on difficult cases, has been criticized publicly and privately by fellow defense lawyers and Marcos associates for sometimes seeming unprepared in court or blundering during witness cross-examinations.
Meetings to assess potential damage to Mrs. Marcos' case after the judge's angry outburst Wednesday ran late into the night, sources confirmed, and included private sessions between Mrs. Marcos and her children, Irene and Ferdinand Jr., who have emerged as strong critics of Spence, sources said.
On Thursday morning, Mrs. Marcos complained of stomach pains. Her blood pressure also was elevated, and her doctors advised her to stay home.
"But Mrs. Marcos wanted to proceed," Spence told reporters later. "She was insistent on proceeding. She's a very brave lady. I think she's anxious to get this trial finished."
It was unclear how her condition would affect the immediate future of the two-month-old trial that was nearing completion. Prosecutors had predicted earlier that they would rest their case next Tuesday or Wednesday.
The court was about to take a four-day break even before Mrs. Marcos became ill. Only one additional prosecution witness was scheduled to appear when court was to resume next week. The defense case, which is expected to be brief, was scheduled to begin immediately after the prosecution finished.
On Thursday, Robert Shaheen--a long-time aide to co-defendant Adnan Khashoggi--had just been cross-examined by Spence when, about 60 minutes into the morning session, Mrs. Marcos suddenly began to vomit blood and then fainted. As she crumpled in her chair, her head fell forward and banged down on the defense table, causing people in the audience to gasp.
Attorney Benjamin Cassiday of Hawaii, who had earlier advised Keenan in the robing room that Mrs. Marcos was ill, was sitting next to her when she collapsed and tried to assist aides who rushed up from the audience to help.
"She didn't say anything. She was gagging on her own blood," Cassiday said. He told reporters later that Mrs. Marcos had "been looking awful all morning."
Keenan immediately excused the jury and then cleared the courtroom, after which Mrs. Marcos was given oxygen and taken by stretcher to an ambulance.
Rempel is a Times staff writer; Luz is a Philippine journalist.