ALEXANDRIA, Va. ñ John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban, pleaded guilty Monday to two charges in a surprise deal with prosecutors that spared him from life in prison. The government called it an "important victory" in the war against terrorism.
The deal, which caught even the trial judge off guard, was announced on the first day of what was supposed to be a weeklong series of hearings at which defense lawyers hoped to get statements Lindh made to investigators thrown out of his trial.
"I plead guilty. I plead guilty, sir," Lindh told the judge as he entered the plea to two charges alleging he supplied help to the Taliban and carried explosives.
Under terms of his deal with prosecutors, Lindh, 21, would serve two 10-year prison sentences and would cooperate fully with U.S. authorities in the investigation of the al Qaeda and terrorism. The 10 charges in the original indictment carried at least three maximum life sentences.
"The court finds your plea of guilty to be knowing and voluntary," U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said. "The court accepts your plea and adjudges you now guilty."
With his parents and younger sister seated behind him, Lindh rose in his green prison jumpsuit to face the judge and state in his own words the crimes he committed.
"I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to November. During the course of doing so I carried a rifle and two grenades," he said.
U.S. District Attorney Paul J. McNulty, chief prosecutor in the case, called the pleading "an important victory for the American people in the battle against terrorism. This is a tough sentence. This is an appropriate punishment and this case proves that the criminal justice system can be an effective tool in the fight against terrorism."
The plea deal, McNulty said, means the U.S. government is now "able to use our limited and very vital resources, not only to continue to prosecute terrorists but to pursue the military campaign."
Noting Lindh's ongoing cooperation, Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the plea deal.
"By going to Afghanistan and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the Taliban, John Walker Lindh allied himself with terrorists who reject our values of freedom and democracy and turned his back on the United States of America," Ashcroft said. "He will now spend the next 20 years in prison ñ nearly as long as he has been alive."º
Lindh, who grew up in a middle class California family before journeying to Afghanistan, was slated for trial in late August.
His lawyers had planned to use a series of hearings this week to ask Ellis to throw out statements Lindh made during his capture because he had not been advised of his rights.
The judge even opened the hearing Monday with some procedural remarks, before defense lawyer James Brosnahan interjected.
"There is a change in plea," Brosnahan said, explaining the deal was reached during negotiations Sunday night.
Before acepting the plea, Ellis asked Lindh if he was willing to forego a trial.
"Yes, sir," Lindh responded.
The judge then asked Lindh a series of standard questions about his background.
"I attended some college in California as well as Yemen," Lindh explained in a soft voice.
The judge asked him to speaker louder. "Do you feel as though you can make a decision about your future today?" Ellis asked.
"Yes," responded Lindh, who would be 41 when freed from prison under terms of the plea deal.
Lindh, from a middle-class family in Marin County, Calif., broke onto the American scene in December when he was discovered among Taliban prisoners captured in Afghanistan.
With long hair and a beard, he gave a hospital bed interview to a freelance reporter for CNN explaining his allegiance to the Taliban.
In military interrogations, he also claimed to have met Osama bin Laden once, government lawyers said.
It was those statements that his lawyers were seeking this week to keep out of the trial before the deal was reached.
While Lindh's team had disputed government accounts of his statements, prosecutors contended that he described enlisting in the Taliban; training at a camp the government says was run by al-Qaida; meeting with bin Laden in Afghanistan in the summer of 2001; and learning from others at the camp that the al-Qaida leader had sent operatives to carry out suicide missions against the United States and Israel.
In advance of Monday's announcement, Lindh's lawyers had been plotting a strategy aimed at challenging the use in court of statements he made while still in Afghanistan. They had contended that the failure to tell him of his right to remain silent and have an attorney present violated his rights. They also had said that Lindh was malnourished, deprived of sleep, bound and blindfolded, conditions that should invalidate anything he said.
Prosecutors responded that the Miranda rule spelling out a defendant's rights has no place on the battlefield. They argued Lindh was treated as well as U.S. soldiers in the field.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6499-2002Jul15.htmlE-mail this article