TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – John Walker Lindh, the man convicted of helping the Taliban following the September 11 attacks, was just released from federal prison in Terre Haute.
Lindh’s case began in November of 2001 when he was fighting alongside the Taliban. The California native had converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually traveled overseas to fight alongside radical Islamists.
Not two months after 9/11, Lindh was captured in Afghanistan, detained and interviewed by a CIA officer, a former Marine named Mike Spann. Just hours later, Spann was killed in a prisoner uprising at the same facility. In the aftermath of that uprising, Lindh was brought back to the U.S. and charged with conspiring to kill Americans and engaging in terrorism.
A conviction could have meant life in prison. Instead, attorneys accepted a plea deal approved by President George W. Bush. Those charges were dropped and Lindh only pleaded guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons while doing so. That resulted in a 20-year sentence. With good behavior, Lindh will be released on May 23 after serving 17 years.
“Just kind of curious as to what the plea bargain was that got him 20 years in prison for doing something very heinous in the minds of many people,” said Terre Haute resident Gwen Hicks.
The customers at Charlie’s Pub and Grub in Terre Haute are familiar with the inmates locked up just a few miles away at the federal prison. To them, Lindh is different. They question whether justice has truly been served in the case of the "American Taliban."
"He did a very drastic crime against our country and he really doesn’t belong here or he shouldn't have any freedom,” said Terre Haute resident Charlie Hoopingarner.
Indiana Senator Todd Young opposes Lindh’s release. The Senator and former Marine is among those on Capitol Hill who are calling for President Trump to step in.
"Now we have this individual potentially being released early on account of ‘good behavior.’ Well, his previous behavior was so abhorrent. I admit it offends the sensibility of a lot of Hoosiers. That's why I look forward to the President reviewing the file," said Young.
No one is angrier about Lindh’s pending release than the family of Mike Spann, the CIA officer killed in that 2001 uprising in Afghanistan.
"How you handle traitors makes a big statement about how you handle the world and how you handle your nation,” said Mike Spann’s father, Johnny.
Johnny Spann leaves no doubt that he holds Lindh responsible for his son’s death. He believes Lindh should have cooperated with Spann and warned him about the planned prisoner uprising.
"There could not have been doubt in his mind who Mike Spann was. Mike had a southern accent. He knew he was an American. All he had to say was 'Hey, I'm an American, ya'll need to get out of here, cause something bad is about to happen,’” said Spann.
John Tompkins is an Army veteran and criminal justice attorney with years of experience in the federal system. He says in many ways, the John Walker Lindh case is similar to any other case where prosecutors have reasons to pursue a plea agreement. He says the government may have been unwilling to declassify sensitive information and risked losing the case entirely if it didn’t reach an agreement.
"The most the government thought they could get for this act of criminal wrongdoing has been dealt with the best way the government thought they could. That's the one sliver of justice, the criminal aspect. The social justice aspect, the bigger picture is not resolved by the criminal justice system,” said Tompkins.
For his part, Johnny Spann also believes that even if Lindh doesn’t bear arms against his country again, it doesn’t mean he’s not a potential threat when he gets out.
"He might not touch anybody and not pull a trigger and shoot anybody, but with all the influence he has being a part of that group, we don't know how many people's going to die because of his influence."