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Lawyers Weigh Defense in American Taleban's Case

In the case of the so-called American Taleban, federal prosecutors are hoping that John Walker Lindh's words will come back to haunt him. Mr. Walker faces four criminal counts including conspiracy to kill Americans and aiding terrorists.

In announcing the criminal charges against John Walker, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft made it clear that prosecutors will build their case against him through his own statements to FBI agents after his capture in Afghanistan in November.

The criminal complaint against Mr. Walker details his alleged paramilitary training by al-Qaida terrorist operatives, his meeting with Osama bin Laden and his decision to take to the front lines with the Taleban.

Attorney General Ashcroft says Mr. Walker was not pressured in any way to make his statements to investigators. "Prior to being interviewed by the FBI, Walker was informed of his Miranda rights, including the right to speak to counsel," he added. "He acknowledged that he understood each of his rights and he chose to waive them, both verbally and in a signed document."

But legal experts predict that the Walker defense team will likely challenge the government's contention that their client willingly divulged details of his involvement with al-Qaida and the Taleban. Eric Muller is a law professor at the University of North Carolina. "I also suspect that as to these statements, you are going to see a blistering attack on how voluntary they are," he said. "I suspect that you are going to have ample testimony from the defense about how there were pressures brought to bear on him, effort to persuade him, perhaps even physical coercion, into making statements that were not truly voluntary. That is what I anticipate as a defense strategy."

A statement from the Walker Lindh family said they were disappointed that the government has held and questioned their son for 45 days without allowing him access to an attorney. The family went on to say that they were grateful to live in a country that presumes innocence and withholds judgment until all the facts are presented.

Legal experts believe that it is possible that defense lawyers will argue that John Walker was a confused 20-year-old whose search for spiritual fulfillment led him to enlist in the cause of radical Islam.

Attorney General Ashcroft seemed to anticipate that argument when he announced the criminal complaint on Tuesday. "Youth is not absolution for treachery and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against one's country," he stressed. "Misdirected Americans cannot seek direction in murderous ideologies and expect to avoid the consequences."

The Walker case will be tried in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington. According to legal scholar Eric Muller, the location of the trial could work in the prosecution's favor when it comes to selecting a jury. "From the prosecutor's standpoint, there will be several communities in Alexandria, Virginia, that are quite helpful," he explained. "One of them is of course, military and retired military [people]. The second, of course, are federal employees. I mean, such an enormous percentage of the people who live in [Washington] DC and in the suburban areas are federal employees in one way or another. And then of course the last plus from the prosecution's standpoint is that there are people who live very close to the Pentagon where one of these planes actually hit a building. So, I think as jury pools go, this is going to be about as prosecution-friendly a pool as you are going to find."

Professor Muller believes a plea bargain deal is possible whereby Mr. Walker could plead guilty to at least some of the charges in exchange for a lesser prison sentence. If convicted on the four counts he now faces, John Walker could be sentenced to life in prison.

Some members of Congress wanted Mr. Walker charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. But a treason conviction requires either a confession in open court or unshakable testimony by two witnesses. Still, Attorney General Ashcroft says it is possible the government could charge Mr. Walker with treason if additional evidence comes to light.