ALEXANDRIA, Va. — John Walker Lindh will face an August trial date on charges that he took up arms against the United States, a federal judge decided Friday, but the court left open the possibility that the proceeding could be delayed until after the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Responding to defense arguments, Judge T.S. Ellis III said he might consider beginning jury selection after a proposed Aug. 26 start because of the emotional observances that likely will surround the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Defense attorney George Harris had argued for a Sept. 16 start, saying there would be "genuine emotion in this country" in the days surrounding Sept. 11. "For us to be in trial at that time is prejudicial to the defendant."
Lindh appeared at Friday's proceeding wearing a prison jumpsuit but not handcuffed or shackled. The 21-year-old Californian is charged in a 10-count indictment with conspiring to kill Americans, using firearms at the request of senior Al Qaeda and Taliban members, and providing material support and resources to foreign terrorist organizations.
Lindh pleaded not guilty Wednesday. If convicted, he could face multiple life terms but not the death penalty. He has not been charged with treason.
Lindh's lawyers said that under the court's schedule--assuming that government prosecutors take two weeks to present their case--the defense's opening statement could fall on or around Sept 11. They warned that the potentially emotionally charged period could lead to a "prejudicial" atmosphere against Lindh.
"I hesitate to bring this up," Harris said. "There is no connection between Sept. 11 and this case. But the government has attempted to make this connection."
Ellis disagreed with the notion that Lindh's right to a fair trial would be affected by the date, saying that there would not be much difference in the publicity surrounding the case whether it was held during the anniversary or after. He also said it wasn't certain that the defense's case would begin on the date, as the prosecution's case could be longer or shorter than the estimated two weeks. But he did not rule out a change.
"I'm not saying I won't reconsider [the date]," Ellis said. "We can revisit this as we approach Aug. 26."
He said the jury would be fair and impartial regardless.
Although the prosecution accepted the trial date without objection, both sides had sought a mid-November start. Ellis, noting that it is not the only case on the court's docket, said Aug. 26 gives both sides "reasonable" time to prepare.
Ellis said he hopes that defense attorneys will be granted clearance to view classified materials by early March, and both sides agreed to the scheduling of hearings on the defense's access to classified materials, with an initial hearing set for April 1. The prosecution was ordered to produce its evidence at an April 23 hearing.
Throughout the hearing, Lindh sat stoically and stared ahead, speaking occasionally to his attorneys. His parents, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, sat not far behind him. After the hearing, they left without giving any comment.