ALEXANDRIA, Va. — 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."