John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to taking up arms as a soldier in the Taliban army and agreed to cooperate with the U.S. government in its efforts to capture and prosecute terrorists.
In return, the government, which once flaunted the ragged-looking captive as the face of terrorism in Afghanistan, dropped all charges against the young man from Northern California for conspiring to kill Americans and absolved him of any responsibility in the death of CIA Agent Johnny Micheal Spann.
The plea abruptly ended what had promised to be the first significant terrorism-related trial since Sept. 11, with dramatic testimony from witnesses now being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as an unidentified CIA operative and other U.S. military and intelligence officials.
Lindh, 21, agreed to plead guilty to two felony charges: He admitted serving as a soldier for the Taliban, and that he carried a rifle and hand grenades while doing so. The latter charge was not part of the original indictment.
Lindh could have received a maximum of three life sentences had he been convicted on all charges. Instead, he accepted a sentence of 20 years in prison and, with time already served and good behavior, could be freed after 17 years.
The arrangement, worked out in marathon sessions over the weekend, was finalized early Monday morning after defense lawyers presented prosecutors with Lindh’s signature at the bottom of a 12-page plea agreement.
Ten hours later, the lanky, shorn defendant, wearing a green prison jumpsuit, stood before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III and gave the government its first criminal conviction among hundreds of captives taken during the war on terrorism.
“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. “And I did so knowingly, knowing it was illegal.”
Outside the courthouse, both sides claimed a measure of satisfaction in the plea agreement, which was announced just as a hearing had been convened on whether half a dozen allegedly self-incriminating statements by Lindh should be used in his trial.
The government won a lengthy sentence for Lindh, as well as his cooperation, which could prove useful in two areas: in corroborating what investigators have learned since Lindh was last questioned, in December, and in prosecuting other captives, such as those housed at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Lindh could be called as a witness against those detainees either in grand jury proceedings or trials.
‘A Tough Sentence’
Also, the government skirted the potentially embarrassing situation of having to explain why Lindh was held for nearly two months in conditions his attorneys described as inhumane. Defense attorneys must drop their claims that Lindh was “tortured.”
They have complained that Lindh was stripped naked and tied for days to a gurney inside a large metal container. Several times, U.S. military members threatened to shoot him, while others took souvenir photographs of him.
Lindh, who also faces $500,000 in fines, must turn over to the government any profits he makes selling his life story.
U.S. Atty. Paul J. McNulty called Lindh’s conviction “an important victory for the American people.”
“This is a tough sentence,” he said. “This is an appropriate punishment. And this case proves that the criminal justice system can be an effective tool in combating terrorism.”
The defense saw its own benefits in the plea arrangement. Lindh likely will still be in his 30s when he is released. And he and his family will not have to bear the cost and uncertainty of a trial that was to begin next month in a Washington suburb filled with potential jurors who work for the military and other government agencies.
Further, the deal means that the man who left home in search of Islamic religious studies will not be legally branded a terrorist.
“He has never had any animosity toward any American serving this country,” said lead defense attorney James J. Brosnahan of San Francisco. “Never. He never wanted to kill anybody.... He never hurt anybody. I think that’s important.”
Studying Islam Abroad
His father, Frank Lindh, a San Francisco-area attorney, said that while he was pleased the case has ended, he still believes the government went too far and “overreacted in an extreme way” in trying to demonize his son as a terrorist and murderer.
“Those were not proper charges in the first place,” Frank Lindh said.
“I told John when he came back from Afghanistan, when I first met him [in jail in January] that Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison. He’s a good man, like John. And I told John he needed to be prepared for something along those lines.
“Someday I hope that the government will come around even further and say that even 20 years is wrong for this boy. He’s a good boy.”
Lindh, who was born in Washington and raised in Marin County, left the U.S. in February 2000 in pursuit of the Muslim faith, traveling to Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He immersed himself in his studies of Islam. But he also sometimes sent angry e-mails home, distancing himself from his family. He claimed the U.S. had instigated the Persian Gulf War and showed no sympathy for the 17 lives lost in the terrorist bombing of the destroyer Cole.
Lindh found his way to a training camp that the government said was run by Al Qaeda, an ally of the Taliban. He learned to fight for the Taliban army and in November surrendered to the Northern Alliance. He then was turned over to U.S. authorities.
He was held for nearly two months, unable to reach his family or attorney, and on six occasions apparently spoke at length to U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials about his activities and work on behalf of the Taliban.
Returned under heavy guard to the U.S., he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 10 counts, including a charge that he conspired to kill Americans and that he conspired with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.
He was also implicated indirectly in the death of Spann, who tried to interrogate Lindh shortly before he was killed in a prison uprising in Afghanistan.
Most Counts Dismissed
In the plea agreement, all but the ninth count of the indictment was dismissed, and Lindh acknowledged his guilt in “providing services” as a soldier for the Taliban. Such activity was outlawed during the Clinton administration because of the Taliban’s close association with Al Qaeda.
Lindh also pleaded guilty to an additional charge of carrying an AKM rifle and two grenades in commission of the felony of supporting the Taliban.
Asked about helping the Taliban, Lindh told Ellis: “I plead guilty, sir.” Asked about carrying the arms, he again said: “I plead guilty, sir.”
Lindh agreed to a prison term of 10 years on each charge, to run consecutively, and Ellis set sentencing for Oct. 4.
Randy I. Bellows, the assistant prosecutor handling the case, gave the court a “Statement of Facts” in which he noted that Clinton in 1999 made it illegal under a “national emergency” for Americans to assist the Taliban.
Nevertheless, Bellows told the judge, Lindh in the spring of 2001 “crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan for the purpose of taking up arms with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance.”
He said Lindh reported to a Taliban recruiting center and “told personnel at that facility that he was an American and that he wanted to go to the front lines to fight.”
Then, in June 2001, Lindh traveled to the al-Farooq training camp, “a facility associated with Osama bin Laden,” Bellows said, where he “participated fully in its training activities,” including courses in weapons, explosives and battlefield combat.
Last summer he swore allegiance to jihad, enlisted in the Taliban army and was given the AKM rifle and grenades. As a soldier, he joined a small fighting unit, rotating in one- to two-week shifts in the trenches, opposing the Northern Alliance troops.
But defense attorney Brosnahan said Lindh never fired his weapon. “This is not Rambo we’re talking about here,” he said.
Further, Brosnahan said, Lindh was horrified by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon and does not consider Bin Laden “an appropriate religious figure of any kind.”
“He identifies with the victims of 9/11, feels bad about it, never supported it, never knew it was coming,” Brosnahan said.
Spann’s widow, Shannon, said that while she disagreed with some terms of the plea arrangement, it provides a measure of relief.
“It helps me to have heard him say that he’s guilty,” she said. “The hardest thing for me was to have him stand in front of the American people in open court and say, I’m not guilty.”
She said she would have preferred to see Lindh face trial on the entire indictment, adding that she felt he deserved a life sentence.
“Mike believed, and I certainly believe, that people should take responsibility for their behavior,” she said. “I’m afraid we’re not sending a very strong message about the seriousness of his behavior.”
But Lindh’s mother, Marilyn Walker, said that while she will be losing her son for a long time, the extended sentence also will give him time to be alone, to pray and to receive visits from his family if their request is granted that he be held in a prison near San Francisco.
“We love John very much,” she said, “and want what is best for him.”
Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.