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A Tale of Two Guantanamo Sentences


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Noah Adams.

Coming up later in the program, the captured British soldiers are back home to Britain. We'll go to Iran for a look at the reaction there.

CHADWICK: First, David Hicks, the Australian who pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism, is still being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Ben Weisner, an ACLU attorney who is there for Mr. Hicks' hearings, updated us on his status.

Mr. BEN WEISNER (Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union): David Hicks is where he's been for the last five years and four months. He is in a cell in Guantanamo Bay. We know that he'll be back in Australia, by the terms of his plea agreement, no later than May 29th of this year.

ADAMS: Hicks is to serve out his sentence of nine more months at an Australian prison. You might remember another man who was also picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan in 2001. John Walker Lindh was captured while fighting with the Taliban.

ADAMS: He is an American. Yesterday, his family and lawyers spoke at a press conference in the hopes of drawing a comparison to David Hicks. John Walker Lindh was captured just two weeks before the Australian, but he pleaded guilty and is still serving a 20-year sentence.

NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: To many Australians, David Hicks became a symbol of victimhood in an increasingly unpopular war. To Americans, John Walker Lindh was the opposite. The difference isn't the difference in temperament between the two countries, but the distance in time between the two combatants.

Robert Pelton was freelancing for CNN in November of 2001 when he was told that an Irishman was among a group of captured Talibanis. Only it wasn't an Irishman, it was an 18-year-old American. And John Walker Lindh was in no way interested in offers of aid, Pelton recalls.

Mr. ROBERT PELTON (Freelance Reporter): John Walker Lindh couldn't have picked a worse time to appear in the pages of history. I mean, he was the very first member of the Taliban, or the enemy, that we met face to face. And he was telling us to go stuff it. So not only did he pick the worst possible time, he said the worst possible things.

PESCA: Lindh had no foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks on America. He heard it on BBC shortwave while in the field in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, when he was brought back to the U.S., the public was out for revenge, recounts his lawyer, James Brosnahan.

Mr. JAMES BROSNAHAN (Lawyer of John Walker Lindh): A member is saying to my wife, don't ever let me tell you I didn't know what I was getting into. Because it was so close to 9/11, I think we Americans were terribly upset, defensive and there was a hysteria throughout the country, worried about other attacks. Unfortunately, that all was put on John's head by Attorney General Ashcroft at the time.

PESCA: Lindh's trial was to take place in Northern Virginia, where Brosnahan knew potential jurors were in a vengeful mood.

Mr. BROSNAHAN: We did a jury survey that showed that almost 40 percent of people surveyed in northern Virginia at that time wanted to give John the death penalty.

PESCA: Like any good defense lawyer, Brosnahan tried to put some distance between the trial and the events of 9/11. He thought the passage of time might calm everyone down a little. But the judge was having none of it. He scheduled John's trial to begin in August of 2002. The first anniversary of 9/11 would undoubtedly fall during the proceedings.

At the same time, prosecutors sensed they might have some trouble with their case. For example, the best evidence against Lindh was a confession which aired on CNN. But Lindh was bound, wounded and for a portion of the interview, on morphine. When prosecutors offered a plea deal of a 20-year sentence, John's father, Frank, was grudgingly relieved.

Mr. FRANK LINDH (Father of John Walker Lindh): In the end, it seemed that it - a plea bargain with the 20-year sentence was about the best he could do under the circumstances, but it doesn't mean that it was the right thing.

PESCA: Today, Frank Lindh, along with his ex-wife Marilyn Walker - who's John's mom - are using the news about David Hicks' imminent release to draw attention to what they call the disproportionality of John's sentence. They have an audience of one. Only a presidential commutation will free their son.

Mr. LINDH: My plea is to President Bush, and I really believe President Bush has it in his heart to commute John's sentence. I really do.

PESCA: Frank Lindh has a big hurdle to overcome in the form of Johnny Michael Spann. He is the CIA officer who tried to talk to John right after he was captured. Lindh refused, and soon thereafter, Spann was killed in a prison uprising.

Spann's father has led the efforts to keep Lindh imprisoned, writing on a Web site: John Walker Lindh also did not inform Mike Spann or any other American there about the planned revolt. If that information had been shared, it would have saved my son's life.

I read that to Frank Lindh. His response:

Mr. LINDH: John was wounded in the same uprising in which Mike Spann was killed, in the very same moments of that uprising. John Lindh and Mike Spann were both victims of those circumstances. There's no reason to think that John Lindh could possibly have known in advance that this was going to occur. John was just trying to stay alive. That's all he did.

PESCA: Today, John Walker Lindh serves his time in a so-called supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, alongside Ted Kaczynski, Zacarias Moussaoui and Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the first World Trade Center attack. Without a commutation, the earliest he could be released is the year 2019.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.