Lindh pleads guilty in deal that spares him from life in prison

Monday, July 15th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban, pleaded guilty Monday to two charges in a surprise deal with prosecutors that spared him from life in prison.

The government hailed the plea as an important victory and said Lindh would cooperate with U.S. intelligence and investigators in anti-terrorism efforts in exchange for his 20-year sentence.

Lindh entered the courtroom with a quick smile for his parents, brother and sister in the second row and sat down with his lawyers, knowing of the surprise that soon would be announced. The judge had less than a half-hour notice that the plea would replace scheduled hearings on whether Lindh's statements in Afghanistan should be thrown out, lawyers said.

``I plead guilty. I plead guilty, sir,'' Lindh told the judge as he entered the plea to two charges alleging he supplied help to the Taliban and carried explosives.

Under terms of his deal with prosecutors, Lindh, 21, would serve two consecutive 10-year prison sentences. The 10 charges in the original indictment carried at least three maximum life sentences.

``The court finds your plea of guilty to be knowing and voluntary,'' U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said. ``The court accepts your plea and adjudges you now guilty.''

With his parents and younger sister seated behind him, Lindh rose in his green prison jumpsuit to face the judge and state in his own words the crimes he committed.

``I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to November. During the course of doing so I carried a rifle and two grenades,'' he said.

U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, chief prosecutor in the case, called the pleading ``an important victory for the American people in the battle against terrorism.

``This is a tough sentence. This is an appropriate punishment and this case proves that the criminal justice system can be an effective tool in the fight against terrorism.'' McNulty said.

The plea deal, McNulty said, means the U.S. government is now ``able to use our limited and very vital resources, not only to continue to prosecute terrorists but to pursue the military campaign.''

Noting Lindh's ongoing cooperation, Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the plea deal. ``He will now spend the next 20 years in prison _ nearly as long as he has been alive,'' Ashcroft said.

President Bush approved the outlines of the deal last week, according to White House and administration officials.

At the Pentagon, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said that as part of the deal, Lindh agreed to ``cooperate on any future intelligence and information gathering,'' with regard to his knowledge about the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Lindh, who grew up in California before journeying to Afghanistan, was slated for trial Aug. 26.

His lawyers had planned to use a series of hearings this week to ask Ellis to throw out statements Lindh made during his capture because he had not been advised of his rights.

The judge even opened the hearing Monday with some procedural remarks, before defense lawyer James Brosnahan interjected.

``There is a change in plea,'' Brosnahan said, explaining the deal was reached during negotiations Sunday night.

Legal sources, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the judge learned of the deal about 20 minutes before the start of Monday's hearing.

Lindh's father said he was thankful the government dropped the more serious terrorism charges. Frank Lindh said he told his son after he was brought back to the United States that South African leader ``Nelson Mandela served 26 years and I told him to be prepared for something like that.''

``John has no bitterness,'' Frank Lindh added.

Lindh's mother described him as a ``kind, humble and a loving son'' who went to Afghanistan to ``satisfy a thirst'' for Islam.

``He did not go to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against the United States,'' Marilyn Walker said.

Before acepting the plea, Ellis asked Lindh if he was willing to forgo a trial.

``Yes, sir,'' Lindh responded.

The judge then asked Lindh a series of standard questions about his background.

``I attended some college in California as well as Yemen,'' Lindh explained in a soft voice.

The judge asked him to speak louder. ``Do you feel as though you can make a decision about your future today?'' Ellis asked.

``Yes,'' responded Lindh, who would be 41 when freed from prison under terms of the plea deal.

As part of the agreement, Lindh said any profits he made from telling his story would be turned over to the government.

Lindh, from a middle-class family in Marin County, Calif., broke onto the American scene in December when he was discovered among Taliban prisoners captured in Afghanistan.

With long hair and a beard, he gave a hospital bed interview to a freelance reporter for CNN explaining describing his allegiance to the Taliban.

In military interrogations, he also claimed to have met Osama bin Laden once, government lawyers said.

It was those statements that his lawyers were seeking this week to keep out of the trial before the deal was reached.

Gail Spann, the mother of the Johnny Micheal Spann, the CIA officer who was shot and killed in the Taliban prison uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif on Nov. 25 after interviewing Lindh, criticized the agreement.

Asked if it was fair, she replied: ``Of course not to Mike's family. I'm sure it is to John Walker's family, but we don't think it is to us, of course. As Mike's mom, I would like for Mike to have had 20 years to live.''

The indictment against Lindh cited Spann's death as an overt act in a conspiracy to murder Americans. No references to Spann were contained in the plea deal.