'I plead guilty,' Taliban American says
Plea bargain precludes possible life sentence
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- The 21-year-old American who fought last year with the Taliban in Afghanistan pleaded guilty Monday to two charges in an agreement with U.S. prosecutors that could keep him in prison for 20 years.
In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop other charges, including conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, that could have kept John Walker Lindh in prison for life. White House officials said President Bush personally approved the arrangement. (More on Bush approving the plea deal)
The announcement surprised most observers, including District Judge T.S. Ellis, and was made public as court officials were preparing to hear arguments from Walker Lindh's attorneys that statements he made to the FBI, military officials and the news media should be thrown out.
Walker Lindh pleaded guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons in doing so. Ellis still has to approve the deal; formal sentencing is set for October 4.
After a few minutes of procedural matters Monday morning, Walker Lindh attorney James Brosnahan stood and announced that a deal had been reached. "Your honor, we have a written agreement and proffer of facts. Walker Lindh signed the indictment."
Ellis then asked Walker Lindh to say, in his own words, what he was admitting to. "I provided services as a soldier to the Taliban last year. I carried a rifle and two grenades," he said, adding that he knew doing so was illegal.
"I plead guilty," he said.
After the session, which lasted nearly an hour, Walker Lindh -- escorted by two marshals -- left the courtroom via a side door, without making eye contact as he had done earlier with his father, mother, sister and older brother, who were seated in the second row.
He then got into a vehicle in a convoy of four SUVs for the short trip back to Alexandria Detention Facility, a state prison leased by the marshals service for federal prisoners being tried.
Both sides entered into plea negotiations six weeks ago and they continued throughout the weekend, culminating in a deal at 1 a.m. Monday, lawyers said. President Bush was repeatedly briefed about the negotiations and was satisfied with the results, the White House said.
Walker Lindh's attorney, James Brosnahan, said Walker Lindh would be eligible for release in 17 years, with good behavior.
Attorney General John Ashcroft called the deal "an important victory in the war against terrorism." (More on Ashcroft's comments)
'History overcame him'
People in the courtroom got their first inkling something was afoot at 10 a.m. Monday, when Walker Lindh -- his hair cut short and his face clean-shaven in stark contrast to his bedraggled appearance when he was found in late November of last year during a prison uprising in Mazar-e Sharif -- walked into the courtroom.
Dressed in a green prison jumpsuit, the usually somber student of Islam who attended high school in a wealthy suburb of Marin County, California, turned to face his 13-year-old sister, Naomi, who was waving toward him.
Walker Lindh flashed a broad smile to her, which she returned.
After Monday's hearing, Brosnahan summarized to reporters what Walker Lindh had acknowledged.
"He was a soldier in the Taliban, he did it for religious reasons, he did it as a Muslim, and history overcame him," Brosnahan said.
Under terms of the deal, Walker Lindh cannot personally benefit financially from any telling of his story. He will also work with U.S. intelligence officials, telling them what he knows concerning the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, whom he saw several times.
Should he again associate with terrorists, he could be brought back into court, where he would be considered an enemy combatant, said U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty.
In addition, Walker Lindh has withdrawn any claims he was mistreated while in U.S. military custody.
"I've always been proud of him," his older brother, Connell Walker, told reporters. "I'm still proud of him. He's behaved with total integrity, total grace. It pains me that he is going to be away for so long, but I'm grateful still for this decision."
"All I can say is I love my brother so much," said sister, Naomi. "I just want him to come home, but I know that's not going to happen."
"John loves America," said father Frank Lindh, a lawyer for Pacific Gas & Electric. "And we love America. God bless America."
"We love John very much, and want what is best for him," said his mother, Marilyn Walker, who is separated from his father. "This decision today will give him an opportunity to give back what he has, so much to offer to the people and for the people and the world."
Brosnahan said his client would continue to study Arabic, the history of Islam and the Quran while in prison, and that he expected he would be able to serve out his term in a facility closer to his family, in northern California.
Federal prosecutors have told the judge they have no objections to Walker Lindh's request to serve his prison time near his family. (Full story)
CIA agent's family disappointed
Walker Lindh was taken into custody along with other Taliban fighters in Afghanistan last December and was identified as an American citizen after a bloody prison uprising, which began in late November in Afghanistan. During the uprising, CIA agent Mike Spann was killed.
Among the dismissed counts was one alleging Walker Lindh was involved in Spann's death.
"I am very disappointed," said Johnny Spann, Mike Spann's father. "My son and all those who are serving overseas have been let down by this decision."
Spann's widow, Shannon, said in a telephone interview from her home in Montgomery, Alabama, that she had a mixed reaction to the plea bargain.
"Certainly, we believed in the government's case against Mr. Walker and felt that he should have had to answer for each one of those charges," Mrs. Spann said.
On the other hand, she said, she was pleased that he pleaded guilty to at least two of the charges.
Asked whether Walker Lindh might have been able to save her husband's life, Mrs. Spann said, "Certainly, the evidence suggests that the uprising that day was not just a spontaneous event. Mr. Walker was traveling with these people.
"He quote, unquote, surrendered. He certainly had the opportunity to have had information that would have saved the course of events that day."
The dropped charges against Walker Lindh included conspiring to kill Americans overseas, providing support to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and using firearms and other destructive devices during crimes of violence.
If convicted of all the charges, he could have received up to three life sentences, plus 90 years in prison.
The bargain was good for both sides, Stephen Saltzberg, a law professor at George Washington University, told CNN.
Walker Lindh was facing a strong possibility of a life sentence, and the government faced the possibility of a trial in which detainees being held on Guantanamo might have testified.
"That would have been a disaster for military intelligence, and our overall intelligence, and I don't think they would have wanted that to happen," he said.
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