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Scientist's Hopes for Freedom Dashed Again

September 12, 2000|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBUQUERQUE — The expected release of Wen Ho Lee was postponed inexplicably Monday and a day of high expectations for the jailed nuclear scientist and his family gave way to dashed hopes as lawyers continued to negotiate a plea agreement.

The deal between federal prosecutors and Lee's attorneys was to have been announced in an afternoon proceeding here.

But twice U.S. District Judge James A. Parker convened his court only to announce that attorneys for both sides had requested a recess. Three hours after the process began--about the time Lee was expected at a block party thrown by his neighbors in White Rock, N.M.--a visibly perturbed Parker announced from the bench that the hearing would convene Wednesday. He gave no reason for the delay.

The cause of the day's abrupt turn of events remained a mystery.

Attorneys in the case rushed through a cordon of reporters on their way out of the courthouse. None would comment on the apparent last-minute haggling behind the scenes over the terms of Lee's release. He has been in solitary confinement for nine months.

"I can't say anything. We are working out the details. I can't tell you anything else," said Lee attorney Nancy Hollander.

Lee's family and friends, who had packed the courtroom expecting to celebrate his release, appeared shocked. His family was quickly ushered from the courtroom with his daughter, Alberta, in tears.

Many in the audience applauded when the diminutive former Los Alamos scientist was led away. There was a shout of "Hang in there, Dr. Lee!"

The Taiwan-born scientist had been charged with 59 counts of stealing the "crown jewels" of the country's nuclear weapons secrets, according to prosecutors. The plea agreement, which had been hammered out after several weeks of discussions with the Justice Department and the FBI, called for Lee to plead guilty to one felony count and to promise cooperation with government investigators. He was to be sentenced to the time he has already served and unconditionally freed.

The day's legal brinkmanship was familiar for the jailed scientist. Lee was within 15 minutes of release on Sept. 3 when Parker was handed faxed notice of a government appeal of the terms of Lee's bail. The judge read the document aloud in court only five minutes before Lee was to have been reunited with his family.

No family member commented on Monday's events, but friends and neighbors who had driven nearly two hours from White Rock were disappointed and emotionally exhausted.

Don and Jean Marshall, neighbors who offered their home to help Lee raise money for bail, had planned to host a welcome home party. Now, they said, once again the celebration will be put on hold.

"As my wife said, 'How can you write the sound of tears?' " Marshall said. "It's so disappointing. We all just want him to come home."

The case of the shy scientist--whose activities were portrayed by the government as a threat to national security--has stirred controversy for more than three years. The 60-year-old was accused of downloading sensitive nuclear data on seven high-density computer tapes--equal to 400,000 pages of data--which the government says it cannot locate.

The federal case has been shrinking since Lee was indicted in December. He was never charged with espionage--giving secrets to a foreign power. And the sensitivity of the material Lee is said to have downloaded has been called into question by fellow nuclear weapons specialists.

Given the weighty charges filed against him, the slender, bespectacled detainee appeared upbeat and calm during his brief moments in court Monday. Wearing a gray suit and with his salt-and-pepper hair closely cropped, Lee waved to acknowledge his friends and gazed, smiling, at his family, who sat in the courtroom's front row.

U.S. marshals were kept busy seating reporters and the public in the crowded courtroom. Spectators who were turned away stood in the hall. They wore yellow and green buttons to show support for Lee.

When Parker entered the courtroom and intoned that the matter of "No. 991417, United States of America vs. Lee" was to be taken up, a murmur of anticipation spread through the audience.

But, after two delays and the final announcement that Lee would not be going home, all decorum was abandoned. Spontaneous cheering and clapping broke out. Family friend Phyllis Hedges said it was meant to convey "our respect for Dr. Lee and his family. He deserves to be free."

Back in White Rock, she said, the deviled eggs and soft drinks would again be refrigerated "for when he comes home for good."

*

Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this story.

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