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Published: Sunday, 7/21/2002

Lindh cops a plea

The plea bargain reached between the federal government and accused American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is probably a good deal for both parties, who had different reasons for avoiding a public trial.

Whether the American people were equally well served by this short-circuiting of justice is another question.

Americans were understandably horrified last fall when they learned that Mr. Lindh, a young Californian and convert to Islam, was among those captured fighting in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban - a movement that served as a cradle for al-Qaeda. It got worse when it became clear that Lindh was also present at the Nov. 25 prison uprising that resulted in the death of American CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann, although Lindh apparently had no role in Mr. Spann's death.

Lindh, charged in January with 10 counts, including conspiracy to kill Americans and involvement in terrorism, pleaded guilty in a federal court Monday to two felony counts. He will likely be sentenced in October to 20 years in prison, without parole, but with the possibility of a few years off for good behavior, and fined $500,000.

For him, this sentence was a good deal. Conviction on any one of the 10 felony counts would have meant 30 years in prison and he might have received a life sentence. A jury in northern Virginia, where the charges were filed, was unlikely to have been very sympathetic to Lindh, given that the Pentagon, located in northern Virginia, was one target of the Sept. 11 terrorists and that CIA headquarters is also located nearby.

But the plea bargain was probably also a good deal for the government. The prosecution got a stiff sentence for Lindh, nearly as long as he has lived his life so far, with no release until his late 30s or early 40s, without having to go through a trial.

It would not have been an easy prosecution. Mr. Lindh looks like the son that every parent might be afraid to have - naive, with beliefs very different from his family's, a loose dog on the beltway of life in terms of his potential for getting into very serious trouble - and in appearance hard even for Attorney General John Ashcroft to label credibly as a dangerous terrorist.

Even when he first appeared in Afghanistan as a dirty, bearded “battlefield detainee” staring at the camera, Lindh did not present the hard mien of Timothy McVeigh, which in the end made it relatively easy to see the Oklahoma City bomber convicted, and even executed.

The worrisome aspect of this outcome of the case is that the forestalling of the Lindh trial means that the federal government and the American population did not see a playing out of a case illustrating the broader issue - how people accused and detained in the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism should be dealt with under American justice.

American citizens Jose Padilla and Yasser Esam Hamdi, instead of appearing before a civilian court, remain in indefinite military detention, held as “enemy combatants.” Hamdi, like Lindh, was apprehended in Afghanistan; Padilla was arrested in Chicago, on American soil.

The Lindh case is settled, but there is more to come in the effort to mesh Americans' strong desire to be safe from terrorism and their equally important and enduring attachment to justice.


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