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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Lindh's Plea Is 'Not Guilty, Sir'

Crime: Outside court, the widow of a slain CIA agent calls for treason charges against the accused American Talib.

February 14, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — John Walker Lindh told a federal judge Wednesday he is "not guilty, sir," but outside the courtroom, the widow of slain CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann said the 21-year-old Californian should be charged with treason and executed.

The presence of Shannon Spann and her husband's parents at the courthouse for his arraignment underscored the belief of many Americans that, because Lindh allegedly rebuked his U.S. citizenship and chose to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he should be tried for betraying his country--a charge that carries the death penalty. Lindh could face multiple life prison terms if convicted of taking up arms against his country, but none of the charges carries a possible death sentence.

"My view today is certainly that he should have been charged with treason," Shannon Spann said. "But I haven't had the chance to speak to the prosecutors yet and to understand what goes into making that decision."

Asked if she thought a life sentence would be too light for Lindh if he is convicted, Spann said: "Certainly I would have preferred the death penalty myself."

Mike Spann had attempted to interrogate Lindh when he was being held at a makeshift prison in Afghanistan in late November. Shortly afterward, a prison riot broke out and Spann was killed, becoming the first U.S. combat casualty in the war on terrorism.

Lindh has never been directly implicated in Spann's death. But prosecutors have said they are still considering a charge of treason against the young man from Marin County. A treason conviction carries the death penalty, but such cases are very difficult to prove in court.

Inside the courtroom, Lindh told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III that he understood the charges, which include conspiracy to kill Americans overseas, in the 10-count grand jury indictment filed against him. Asked how he was pleading, Lindh said simply: "Not guilty, sir."

Much of the rest of the brief hearing dealt with procedural matters. Ellis said he wanted to set a trial date for late summer.

But prosecutors and defense attorneys filed a joint legal brief proposing a mid-November start date.

Defense lawyers said they anticipated the need to conduct an investigation overseas, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan and possibly Yemen. Lindh had traveled to those countries to pursue his religious studies in Islam, later allegedly joining an Osama bin Laden terrorist training camp.

But Ellis said November "is way too far" off to start the trial. "It's not appropriate," the judge said. "We need it sooner." He set a hearing for Friday to discuss scheduling and other matters.

When Wednesday's proceeding ended, Lindh smiled at his father, San Francisco energy lawyer Frank Lindh, as he left the courtroom. Then Frank Lindh started to approach Spann's father, Johnny Spann, to acknowledge him, but a court officer separated the two men.

Outside, the Spann family described how they felt seeing Lindh in the courtroom, shorn of hair and beard.

Shannon Spann said Lindh first turned his back on the United States and now wants his rights protected as a criminal defendant.

"He believes his extreme form of Islam sort of gives him the right to wage jihad against the West, specifically against Americans," she said. Now, "he has chosen to trust in the prosperity and protection of the United States of America by saying he's not guilty of the things he's dedicated his life to."

But, she said, "we expect him to be held personally responsible for all of the things he has done."

Gail Spann, the dead CIA agent's mother, said that, even though Lindh has not been charged with treason, he betrayed his country just the same.

"Mike is a hero not because of the way he died but because of the way he lived," Gail Spann said. "And I'd also like to say that John Walker is a traitor because of the way he lived.

"Go back to the time when he was 16 years old and go through his history. What more can I say? It's so simple, and I hope that all Americans will feel the same way that I do."

Indeed, media polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe Lindh may be guilty of treason. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll two weeks ago, for instance, found that 60% of the respondents disagreed with the decision not to charge him with treason.

"Americans will not tolerate traitors," said Spann's father, in a hint that the family believes treason charges should be added against Lindh.

"Mike believed in the justice system," Johnny Spann said. "He died for it. He died for this way of life we enjoy. We also have that same faith in this justice system, and we assume, we believe, that justice will prevail."

Lindh's parents did not speak after the hearing and quickly left the courthouse.

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