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Lindh's Attorneys Lose Bids for Dismissal, Trial in Bay Area

Courts: A federal judge says trying to find jurors unfamiliar with the case is futile. One key defense motion is unresolved.

June 18, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal judge Monday denied requests by defense attorneys to dismiss charges against John Walker Lindh, the young American who fought for the Taliban, and rejected a proposal to move the trial to Northern California, where Lindh was raised.

In turning down the half-dozen requests, Judge T.S. Ellis III said that because so many people already know about the Lindh case, it seemed fruitless to move the trial, scheduled for August, in search of a completely unaffected jury pool.

"Indeed," the judge said in jest, "we might have to go to the planet Pluto to find inhabitants who have not heard of it."

Ellis' rulings came at the end of a nearly all-day hearing in which defense attorneys argued a number of formal requests to persuade the judge to dismiss the indictment against Lindh. At day's end, they came away empty-handed.

Still unresolved was the most critical pretrial motion: a defense request to exclude a series of statements Lindh made to military and FBI interrogators after his capture in Afghanistan.

That is scheduled to come up in a pretrial hearing next month. Should the defense succeed there, it could gut the heart of the government's case and, some experts say, lead to a plea bargain.

But Monday was clearly the government's day, and so confident were federal prosecutors that they would prevail, they spent little time explaining to the judge why he should deny the defense requests. Defense attorneys, in contrast, were given extra time to make their arguments.

The defense's key requests centered on dismissing the indictment or moving the trial to San Francisco. James Brosnahan, the lead defense attorney, argued that Alexandria, where the case is being heard, is home to many military personnel and others who were deeply hurt by the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, only a few miles from the courthouse.

Brosnahan pointed to polls showing that 75% of the respondents in northern Virginia believed that Lindh is "guilty of something" and they "feel the punishment should be severe." The defense lawyer noted the Oklahoma City bombing trials were moved to Denver because of similar ill feelings.

But Randy Bellows, the lead prosecutor, argued that many of those killed Sept. 11 aboard the hijacked airplanes were headed home to California, contradicting defense arguments that Californians were unaffected by the terrorist attacks.

The Oklahoma City bombing had a "singular and unique impact" on that city, he said, because the courthouse next door was heavily damaged in that blast.

Ellis agreed, saying that the Oklahoma City bombing was more of a "local" event compared with Sept. 11, and he stressed that any prospective jurors in the Lindh trial have deep feelings about the attacks.

Turning aside defense arguments that the case should be heard near Lindh's family home in the San Francisco area, Ellis said: "There is no right in American law to be prosecuted where one resides, or used to reside."

The trial will most likely be underway at the one-year mark of the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks, and defense lawyers have worried that the flood of anniversary stories in the media could turn the jury against them.

Lindh is charged with conspiracy to commit murder and other offenses while fighting against the United States in Afghanistan, not with any role in the Sept. 11 attacks themselves.

But the government contends that Osama bin Laden's organization trained Lindh to kill Americans.

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