Lindh guilty plea useful for precedents not set

A trial might have set a benchmark for two other US citizens charged as terrorists.

By entering into a plea bargain with accused "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, US prosecutors have gained guaranteed punishment in prison for Mr. Lindh and a pledge that he will cooperate with American intelligence agents seeking to head off future terror attacks.

But perhaps most significant, federal prosecutors avoid establishing a series of legal precedents about how American citizens caught up in the war on terrorism should be treated under the US justice system.

Noncitizen enemy combatants are being held indefinitely in a military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One other noncitizen, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national, is slated to stand trial in Alexandria, Va., later this year for alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 conspiracy.

At least two US citizens are being held in military custody in Virginia and South Carolina, and it remains unclear whether the government can legally hold them without affording them constitutional protections.

Had the Lindh case gone to trial and through the inevitable appeals, it might have set a benchmark complicating the ongoing indefinite detention of those other Americans who are suspected terrorist sympathizers.

Instead, the Lindh case will likely drop from the national spotlight.

The government was able to do this "without testing the limits of the [antiterror] legislation," Christopher Pyle, law professor, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass. "It's extremely vague legislation, and I would think it's in the government's interest not to try this out in court, but rather to use it as a club to get plea bargains."

Lindh agreed to plead guilty to two charges, that he aided the former Taliban government in Afghanistan in violation of US law, and that he carried explosives while committing that crime. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

The plea bargain is also significant because it suggests that federal prosecutors do not believe Lindh played a direct role in the shooting death of a CIA agent during a prison uprising at the Qala-i-Jani fortress in northern Afghanistan last November. Lindh was shot in the leg during the uprising.

At the center of any Lindh trial would have been a series of statements he made to military personnel, federal agents, and even a reporter for CNN after being taken into US custody.

His lawyers argued that many of these statements should be suppressed, because the conditions of his confinement forced him to make damaging admissions. Federal prosecutors countered that he was given superb medical treatment, fed at least two meals a day, and given the opportunity to rest.

Both sides in the case were prepared to argue those and other issues in court in US District Court in Alexandria this week. Instead, defense attorney James Brosnahan rose from the defense table and informed an apparently surprised US District Judge T. S. Ellis that his client would change his plea from not guilty to guilty.

"I plead guilty. I plead guilty, sir," Lindh told the judge, who then accepted the plea.

With his parents and younger sister seated behind him, the California native rose in his green prison jumpsuit to face the judge and state in his own words the crimes he committed – including carrying "a rifle and two granades" for the Taliban.

• Material from the Associated press was used in this report.

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