Walker case hinges on his prior statements

Justice Department charges captured US citizen with conspiracy to kill Americans, but so far not with treason.

For John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban," the biggest foe he may have to overcome in the courtroom is himself.

Prosecutors are likely to build much of their conspiracy case against against the California native using testimony he provided willingly in interviews with the FBI and news media after his capture in Afghanistan.

Among other things, he acknowledged meeting Osama bin Laden at a terrorist training camp and showed awareness that Al Qaeda's goal was to inflict casualties on Americans.

His defense attorneys, for their part, are likely to argue that his confessions were coerced. Consequently, what was said and done while the mysterious Walker was in custody at a marine base in Afghanistan and on a US warship will lie at the heart of what is sure to be a showcase trial: The United States of America v. John Philip Walker Lindh.

The fascination won't just be over legal principles. Walker's alleged role as a lone American-born youth in league with bin Laden raises captivating moral and social questions: Why did a teenager from a well-off family near San Francisco apparently turn on his own nation? Does he deserve any special consideration for his status as a citizen?

Prosecutors indicted Walker Tuesday for conspiring to kill Americans and aid Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network, not on the more serious charge of treason. But they have voiced no notes of sympathy. Attorney General John Ashcroft, in announcing the indictment, emphasized Walker's actions were his own at every step.

"At each crossroad, Walker faced a choice, and with each choice, he chose to ally himself with terrorists," Ashcroft said. "Terrorists did not compel John Walker Lindh to join them. John Walker Lindh chose terrorists."

To convict on the most serious charge, prosecutors must prove Walker entered into an agreement, whether formal or unspoken, to kill American citizens situated outside the US.

Walker told FBI agents he met bin Laden at a terrorist training camp where bin Laden thanked him for taking part in the jihad. He continued fighting alongside Taliban soldiers after learning of the attacks on New York and Washington, which he understood to have been ordered by bin Laden.

Most significant may be Walker's contact with CIA agent Johnny Spann, who was killed at a riot of Taliban prisoners shortly after he interviewed Walker. The indictment alleges Walker told FBI agents that he was interviewed by two Americans, including Spann. Soon after the interview, Walker said he heard shots and screams from the basement of the prison. He tried running in that direction but was shot in the leg and collapsed before other prisoners dragged him into the basement.

Even if Walker did not actively participate in the prison uprising, evidence that he was aware of a planned breakout may be sufficient to prove a conspiracy, says Eric Muller, an assistant professor of criminal law at the University of North Carolina. "He didn't need to have pulled the trigger to have participated."

Attorneys say Walker's best defense against four charges that could bring life in prison may be proving he was denied the protections guaranteed to all criminal defendants while detained by US troops.

The indictment alleges Walker voluntarily signed a waiver of his right to be represented by an attorney before being interviewed by FBI agents. But his status as a military prisoner could raise doubts about whether the waiver was voluntary. "If the information gained in those interrogations now forms the basis for his indictment ... then that's going to pose some real problems for the government," says Elisa Massimino, of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in Washington.

Walker's comments on CNN may also be vulnerable to attack. "The guy we saw on television was a 20-year-old person loaded with morphine after he was taken out of a prison," says Houston defense lawyer Edward Mallett.

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