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Plea Agreement for John Walker Lindh

Aired July 15, 2002 - 11:02   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: But right now up first on CNN, a big surprise from American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh this morning: a plea deal.

CNN national correspondent Bob Franken is at the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia with the details on this.

Bob, once again.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Carol, just moments ago, court, in fact, was over. The judge has approved a plea bargain by John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. Instead of facing life in prison, he pleaded guilty to two charges, which will bring up to 20 years in prison. The two include providing aid to the Taliban -- illegal aid to the Taliban as he carried weapons and was a member of their forces. And secondly, carrying explosive devices, namely grenades, while he committed that crime. As I said, a possibility of 20 years in prison without parole.

Now this is at the beginning of the court case that was going to today start hearing about whether the confessions and statements that John Walker Lindh had made on and around the battlefield would be admitted if his trial went forward later this year, a trial in which he faced life in prison. But of course he has now made this plea bargain.

John Walker Lindh was captured at the very end of November and was interrogated for 55 days before he was returned to the United States in January to face the legal action. There have been plea bargain discussions going on now for several weeks to one degree or another. They intensified last week. Reporters were beginning to feel like something might be going on, but none of the participants would say anything. These were conducted, as a matter of fact, in remarkable secrecy. And the final deal was not reached until so late last night that the judge could not be called and given a copy of the deal. That, in fact, happened in court this morning.

The deal, again, John Walker Lindh avoids trial, avoids all the other charges against him in return for pleading guilty, guilty to two charges that bring 20 years in prison with no possibility of parole. Pus a variety of other conditions: cooperation with the United States, no further association with the Taliban and in fact the other conditions that go with the supervised parole, which will last six years after his sentence. We're waiting in just a short while to hear from the defense attorney Jim Brosnahan and the U.S. attorney Paul McNulty, both of whom were in the courtroom today. I am sure there'll be a parade of people who will be talking about defending and arguing about this plea bargain -- Carol.

LIN: All right, thank you very much. Bob Franken outside the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

Also joining us this morning, Kendall Coffey, former U.S. attorney, and we've got John King standing by at the White House there.

First to you, Kendall, what's your read on why this deal was made?

KENDALL COFFEY, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Well I think the deal was made from the defense standpoint because everything was very uphill. And assuming in all likelihood that their client was going to lose at trial, face the risk of losing on the conspiracy to commit murder against U.S. nationals, which presented a life sentence, so the defense had lots of reasons to agree with the plea bargain.

From the government's side, there were reasons as well. Even though I think they were going to win on the various issues that were being presented this week, there are a lot of things in there, including the fairly rough conditions that Walker Lindh was subjected to, including the fact that, for example, the government knew, the whole country knew by December 3, as this was being reported on CNN, that there was a lawyer who was being made available for John Walker Lindh by his parents and yet the FBI never told John Walker Lindh that when he was interrogated a week later.

There were a lot of individual circumstances which created some risk of some jury sympathy, as unlikely as it seems, for somebody who is probably the most notorious defendant in America. So there was risk for both sides. The fact that he faces up to 20 years in prison seems to be a fair result, and I think the right result.

LIN: Kendall, I'm going to interrupt you at this point, we've got the government attorneys now approaching the mike stand.

PAUL MCNULTY, U.S. ATTORNEY: Case of the United States versus John Walker Lindh, the defendant has agreed to plead guilty and face 20 years in federal prison. I'd like to outline now the essence of that guilty plea.

The defendant has agreed to plead guilty to assisting the Taliban. Now the Taliban has been found by both President Clinton and President Bush to be in association with al Qaeda, and the defendant has agreed that he provided material assistance to the Taliban. He has stipulated to facts, which include that he traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, that he volunteered his services to fight to the Taliban, that he was trained at a military camp associated with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, that he was armed with rifles and grenades and then reported to the front to fight alongside the Taliban. The defendant has also pled guilty to being armed with explosives, including rifles and grenades.

Now these two charges, he has agreed, will carry, subject to the court's final approval, a sentence of 20 years in federal prison. In addition, the defendant has agreed to cooperate fully and completely with the United States government. This means that he will be polygraphed, that he will be subject to debriefings by intelligence, military, law enforcement, that he will participate in any legal proceeding that the government should call upon him for.

He also has agreed to forego any profit, personally, from what he has done, that he cannot benefit financially and all proceeds of his story would go to the federal government. He has hanging over him for the rest of his life, in addition to the 20-year prison sentence, the possibility of being treated as an enemy combatant if he should ever engage in any activity constituting acts of terrorism. And finally, he has withdrawn any claims of mistreatment by the United States military.

These are the parameters of the plea agreement reached with John Walker Lindh. This plea agreement is 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 combating terrorism. It's been only five months since he was indicted, and now he stands guilty for crimes involving assistance to the Taliban and to engaging in the crime of violence using explosives.

We also, through this plea, are able to now use our limited and very vital resources to not only continue to prosecute terrorists but also to pursue the military campaign. And for that reason this plea is very valuable to the cause against terrorism.

I want to thank those who worked so hard to make this case a great success. Great credit belongs to the men and women of law enforcement and to the United States military for all the work that was done to bring John Walker Lindh to justice. In particular, I want to thank the three prosecutors in this case, Randy Belos (ph), Dave Kelly (ph), John Davis (ph), for outstanding work. These three gentlemen are among the finest prosecutors in the United States, and the American people should be very grateful for their service.

I also want to thank Lynne Johnson (ph) and Maryanne King (ph) in the United States attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia for their very tireless assistance in this case.

And from the FBI, Ann Asberry (ph) and Darnell Holbrooke (ph) who were the lead and key agents in this work. The Department of Defense provided great assistance, especially the General Counsel's Office, and we are thankful for that. And again, we are thankful to the armed services for all their work.

This is a great accomplishment for the United States government, and justice has been well served.

I'll now answer any questions you might have.

QUESTION: Paul, how did this deal unfold?

MCNULTY: Well I won't go into the particulars about how discussions progressed, only to say that we came to a point where we were able to discuss the terms of a plea agreement. I think it's fair to say that the defendant saw the strength of our case. We are quite confident that if we had gone to trial we would have prevailed on all counts. And we are quite confident that we would have prevailed this week on these suppression hearings. And I think the defendant felt the same way and that's why he was willing to accept a 20-year sentence. Twenty years is a period of time which is almost as long as he's been alive. This is a major sentence, and I think it proves the strength of our case.

QUESTION: Can you go into any more detail about the agreement (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they might be able to help in other prosecutions or other investigations?

MCNULTY: Well, we really don't know at this point only because we have not been able to talk to him other than his original interviews. And so it remains to be seen what value, how much information he will provide. So I don't think I can speculate at this point.

QUESTION: Could you clarify what you (INAUDIBLE)?

MCNULTY: In this plea agreement the defendant -- well excuse me, the Department of Defense will forego treating John Walker Lindh as an enemy combatant after he's released from prison. If at any time for the rest of his life he should engage in any behavior that constitutes a terrorist offense, then the United States government will have the right to seek to apprehend him and to hold him as an enemy combatant. And in this plea agreement, he acknowledges that right.

QUESTION: What will the government do with the money from the John Walker Lindh story?

MCNULTY: Well that's assuming there is any, and I can't speculate at this point as to what would occur if there should be any profit on his side. This is a provision that exists in many plea agreements, and the government receives that funds for general purposes I assume.


QUESTION: Does this (INAUDIBLE) pleading guilty to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) against the Taliban and carrying weapons on victims (ph)?

MCNULTY: He's essentially agreeing to the heart of our case. What he's doing here is he's agreeing that he allied himself with the Taliban who, of course, are closely connected and associated with al Qaeda terrorist organization. So he's pleading to the fact that he was a foot soldier in the Taliban's army and that he was armed in so doing it.

QUESTION: Breaking a law that was passed long before September 11 and not admitting to anything that happened specifically (UNINTELLIGIBLE) September 11?

MCNULTY: Well of course the charges in the indictment were charges -- all of the laws in the indictment were laws that existed before September 11. So in that sense, the government has charged him with laws predating the tragedy of September 11, and he has pled guilty to two particular charges.

Yes, back there.

QUESTION: Why did you drop the conspiracy charge?


MCNULTY: I'm sorry, I can't hear you.


MCNULTY: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: The toughest charge against John Lindh was that he conspired to kill Americans. Could you have proven that if you'd gone to court? And how does that play with (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?


QUESTION: OK. And did Judge Ellis know anything? What did he know about this agreement when he came to court? It seemed like he was ready to move forward.

MCNULTY: Well, as we -- as the defense counsel said this morning, this agreement -- defense counsel said this morning, this agreement was reached very late last night.

QUESTION: What time?

MCNULTY: Well, at midnight thereabouts. And so the court was properly noticed as soon as practical after that point.

QUESTION: Paul, did president -- was President Bush aware of this? Did he sign off on it? And a second part is the enemy combatant issue, was that something that was -- that you'd been considering along? I mean if you had lost this case, could you have held him as an enemy combatant -- like switched him over to an enemy combatant status?

MCNULTY: Well, a case of this significance you can assume would have been properly clear throughout the administration. I won't comment on any specific person within the administration and what actions were taken.

As far as the option of enemy combatant status, that's something the Department of Defense, with, of course, the guidance of the White House, and since it's (ph) a connected to a presidential authority that's something that would be exercised there. And as this plea agreement specifies, that's a right that existed and it is being set aside during the time of incarceration and could be exercised following that period of time.

QUESTION: Paul, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) future enemy combatant status, did I understand Randy to say in the courtroom that it could be brought -- if you're -- are you continuing to investigate the charges in the indictment if you prove -- if you can find other witnesses that say that he engaged in specific terrorist acts, could he be tried for those or is it completely waiving all of that, this is only for future?

MCNULTY: Right, those charges have been dismissed and the plea agreement provides that those particular charges cannot be brought against him again, assuming that he doesn't violate the plea agreement.

QUESTION: Mr. McNulty?


QUESTION: You said you didn't want to give too many details of the negotiations, but you reached an agreement midnight last night. Can you at least say this occurred over the weekend? When did you first begin serious discussions with the defense on this that culminated in last night's?

MCNULTY: Well they began last week and towards the end of last week. And so the period of time, but most intense activity have occurred over the last couple of days.

QUESTION: In dealing with this, did you take into account age, inexperience, bad choices, that kind of thing? Any compassion in this outcome?

MCNULTY: Well that's not really in the consideration of what we've done. What we've done is sought the strongest sentence possible given the charges against the defendant. And the conduct was quite serious, and we had to make sure that the sentence was quite serious; and we're very confident it is. Twenty years, make no mistake, is a very tough sentence.

QUESTION: Did they try for 10? Did they try to...

MCNULTY: Again, I won't...


MCNULTY: ... I won't -- I won't discuss the specific discussions that occurred, just to say that we came to that agreement.

QUESTION: He was originally charged with 10 counts, including 3 that faced -- where he -- in which he faced a life sentence. Does this plea agreement, on one of those counts an additional charge for 20 years, does that indicate that the government overreacted to the initial charges and essentially he's agreed to what he never really denied in the first place that he was a soldier with the Taliban?

MCNULTY: No, this plea agreement doesn't admit that at all. We stand strongly behind the original indictments. And again, if we were to have gone to trial, we are confident that we would have prevailed on all counts. This plea agreement represents an opportunity for the government to get a very tough sentence, to get cooperation and to conserve precious resources for the future challenges we face in the war against terrorism. This was a good opportunity for the government to get a very good result and not in any way a sign of any weakness in our case. Our case is very strong, and I think that's why the defendant was willing to agree to such a long sentence.

QUESTION: Did you -- early on Johnny Stand's (ph) family had had some interest in the case. Did you have any contact with them about what you were going to do in the case?

MCNULTY: Well I can't comment about our discussions in that regard. We have had contact periodically, but I'll refer from any reference to conversations we've had with them.

QUESTION: You know Denny (ph) said he did provide material assistance and he did work under Osama bin Laden. Did he admit to knowing anything about any terrorist attack against the U.S., not just 9/11, embassies, Cole?

MCNULTY: The plea agreement and the statement of facts don't contain any information about the crimes of September 11. The ongoing discussions and the cooperation he has pledged to provide will, of course, cover a wide range of issues. And it's...

LIN: All right, I'm going to -- I'm going to interrupt here, the U.S. attorney Paul McNulty there, to take you live to Birmingham, Alabama where the president of the United States trying to pump up the economy to a speech to business people in Alabama.




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