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John Walker Lindh makes first court appearance

23 hours a day in 7.5 foot square cell

An artist's sketch shows John Walker Lindh appearing in federal court Thursday.  

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh made his first U.S. court appearance Thursday -- saying he understood the charges that he conspired to kill his fellow Americans in Afghanistan.

Slightly gaunt and wearing a green jumpsuit, a clean-shaven Walker Lindh entered the packed courtroom escorted by a group of security guards and U.S. marshals.

When asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge W. Curtis Sewell whether he understood the charges, Walker Lindh responded, "Yes, I do," and when asked if he understood that if convicted he could be sentenced to life in prison, he said, "Yes, I understand."

The 20-year-old convert to Islam has gone by the name of John Walker, his mother's last name, but is referred to as John Walker Lindh by court documents and all principals in the case.

"John loves America. We love America"
- Frank Lindh, father
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Before his 15-minute court hearing, Walker Lindh met with his parents for 45 minutes -- their first meeting since his return from Afghanistan.

After leaving the courthouse, his father, Frank Lindh, told reporters: "John loves America. We love America. John did not do anything against America. John did not take up arms against America. He never meant to harm any American, and he never did harm any American. John is innocent of these charges."

John Walker Lindh's mother, Marilyn Walker, added that it had been two years since she had seen her son.

"It was wonderful to see him this morning. My love for him is unconditional and absolute, and I am grateful to God that he has been brought home to his family," she said. She and Walker Lindh's father are separated.

Jail conditions for Walker

CNN's Jonathan Aiken talks with Sheriff James Dunning about accommodations in the Alexandria, Virginia, jail (January 25)

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Timeline: Walker's route to prison 

Walker Lindh is being held at Alexandria Detention Center in a walled cell about 7.5 feet square until a preliminary hearing set for February 6. During that period, prosecutors may seek a grand jury indictment.

The cell contains a bed, a sink and a toilet, Sheriff Frank Dunning told CNN. Other prisoners are housed on the floor. Walker Lindh can leave his cell for one hour a day to exercise or use a common area. There are no inmates housed on either side of him, Dunning said.

The same facility is housing Zacarias Moussaoui, the first suspect charged in the September 11 terrorist attacks. There also are about a dozen other suspects held there who were arrested as part of the terror investigation.

Walker Lindh's return Wednesday to the United States came two years after he left the country as a teen-ager for Yemen to study Arabic and Islam -- a journey that the U.S. government alleges eventually took him to al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The criminal complaint alleges Walker Lindh learned this past summer from one of his instructors at a terrorist training camp that Osama bin Laden "had sent people to the United States to carry out several suicide operations." The complaint also alleges Walker Lindh received personal thanks from bin Laden for "taking part in jihad."

Walker Lindh was taken into custody by the U.S. military after a bloody prison uprising, which began November 25 in northern Afghanistan. During that uprising, CIA operative Mike Spann was killed.

Defense attorney: Legal rights denied

Lead defense attorney James Brosnahan, who met with his client for the first time just before the hearing, complained to the court that his client had been denied legal representation.

"For 54 days, the United States government has kept John Lindh away from a lawyer. He began requesting a lawyer almost immediately, which would have been December 2nd or 3rd," Brosnahan told reporters after the hearing. "For 54 days, he was held incommunicado."

During that time, the attorney charged, government officials leaked or stated their understanding of the evidence in violation of court rules, Brosnahan said.

"This court has a rule that many courts have which prohibits people like federal officials from commenting on the evidence in a way that will prejudice the defendant," Brosnahan added.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said Walker Lindh waived his rights to an attorney both orally and in writing during interrogation sessions.

Brosnahan also said that under a Supreme Court case, Walker should have had an arraignment 48 hours after the charges were made last Tuesday, but he said that had not happened.

Prosecutor Paul McNulty, also addressing reporters after the hearing, refused to address the issues raised by Brosnahan but said the criminal complaint filed in the case indicates Walker Lindh waived the right to counsel when he talked to the FBI. "We're going to make sure as best we possibly can -- and I have great confidence -- that we will afford every right that is present under the law," McNulty said.




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