Surprise guilty plea by American-born Taliban Lindh

By Larry Margasak, The Associated Press
Tuesday July 16, 2002

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — John Walker Lindh, the young convert to Islam who left California to fight alongside the Taliban, pleaded guilty to two felonies Monday in a surprise deal that spares him life in prison and ensures his cooperation with terrorism investigators. 

Lindh faces a maximum of 20 years in prison under the agreement struck between prosecutors and defense lawyers after a weekend of negotiations that ended after midnight — just hours before he was set to appear for court hearing. 

“I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to November,” Lindh told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, recounting the two crimes to which he pleaded guilty. 

“During the course of doing so I carried a rifle and two grenades. And I did so knowingly and willingly,” he added. 

In accepting the plea, prosecutors foreclosed the chance for the public to see evidence in the first major trial scheduled from the war on terrorism. 

U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said prosecutors had a strong case against Lindh but wanted to reserve “limited and very vital resources” for other terrorism cases. 

“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. 

Chief defense lawyer James Brosnahan said Lindh joined the Taliban because he was a devout Muslim. He never fired his rifle and never intended to hurt Americans, the lawyer said. 

“This is not Rambo we’re talking about here,” Brosnahan said. 

Lindh’s mother, Marilyn Walker, broke down outside the courthouse as she called him an “honest, kind, humble and a loving son.” 

Lindh was set to be tried Aug. 26, and now will be sentenced Oct. 4. 

Monday’s events leaves Zacarias Moussaoui, the Frenchman charged with conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, as the lone marquee defendant awaiting trial on terrorism charges. His trial is to begin at the end of September. 

Lindh, 21, entered the courtroom wearing a green prison jumpsuit and offered a quick smile to his parents, older brother and younger sister sitting in the second row. 

The judge had planned to hold hearings this week on whether Lindh’s statements to investigators and the news media in Afghanistan should be kept out of his trial. 

Ellis, who learned of the plea deal shortly before the hearing began, opened court by discussing arrangements for the hearing before Brosnahan interjected, “There is a change in plea.” 

An hour later, Lindh entered his two guilty pleas and ended talks that went so late Sunday that Lindh’s lawyers had to make special arrangements to return to his cell so he could sign off on the deal. 

President Bush was told of a possible deal last Thursday, administration officials said. 

“I plead guilty,” Lindh told Ellis as he entered his plea to one count of supplying services to the Taliban, Afghanistan’s now-ousted strict Muslim rulers. To the charge of carrying explosives during commission of a felony, Lindh said, “I plead guilty, sir.”