ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- John Walker Lindh, whose discovery as a U.S.-born Taliban fighter startled the nation, received a 20-year sentence Friday after condemning Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network during a sobbing, halting plea for forgiveness.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III accepted the plea-agreement Lindh's lawyers had negotiated with the government. During a drama-packed two-and-a-half hour proceeding, he told the young Californian, "You were willing to give your life for the Taliban but not for your country."
In a 20-minute statement, Lindh expressed remorse for joining the Taliban. "I understand why so many Americans were angry when I was first discovered in Afghanistan. I realize that many still are, but I hope that with time and understanding, their feelings will change."
Ellis acknowledged Lindh's plea, but declared, "Forgiveness is separate from punishment." He told a packed courtroom, which included Lindh's parents, brother and sister, that many Americans will think his sentence was too lenient while others will believe it was too severe.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, asked if he thought Lindh's statement was sincere, replied, "The information he provided was viewed by the court as an acceptance of responsibility and I'll leave it at that."
Lindh's tearful apology, during which he repeatedly stopped in mid-sentence to compose himself, contrasted with Richard Reid's laughter as he pleaded guilty in Boston to attempting to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives hidden in his shoes. He also declared himself a follower of Osama bin Laden.
Lindh, on the other hand, has consistently denied that he ever swore loyalty to bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, even though he acknowledged having met him briefly at a military training camp in Afghanistan. He roundly condemned the terrorist leader in his statement.
Lindh told the judge that "Bin Laden's terrorist attacks are completely against Islam, completely contrary to the conventions of jihad and without any justification whatsoever."
"His grievances, whatever they may be, cannot be addressed by acts of injustice and violence against innocent people in America."
Both Reid and Lindh were apprehended late last year while the U.S. was pursing the war in Afghanistan. But even as the government prosecuted Lindh and Reid, neither emerged as more than foot soldiers in the terrorist ranks.
Lindh was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan and was in the vicinity of a prison uprising where CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed. Spann's father, Johnny, told the judge Friday that Lindh was partly responsible for his son's death.
"My grandchildren would love to know their dad would be back in 20 years," he said. "The punishment doesn't fit the crime to me."
Ellis, however, said he never would have approved the plea agreement if the government had shown any evidence that Lindh was responsible for Spann's death. Lindh told the judge, "I had no role in the death of Johnny Micheal Spann."
Lindh pleaded guilty last July to supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during commission of a felony. Each count carries a 10-year sentence. The government told Ellis last week that Lindh had fulfilled his agreement to cooperate, allowing prosecutors to drop more serious charges that could have brought a life sentence.
As part of the plea agreement, neither Lindh nor his family can profit by selling his story.
Lindh, wearing glasses and a standard-issue green jumpsuit, still has the close cropped hair style he adopted soon after being returning to America. His appearance remained a far contrast from the long-haired, bearded image that he projected on television after his capture -- a picture that shocked Americans who discovered that one of their own had been fighting for the Taliban.
"I want the court to know, and I want to American people to know," Lindh said, "that had I realized then what I know now about the Taliban, I would never have joined them."
Lindh also told the court that he never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism and declared, "I condemn terrorism on every level unequivocally."
He said he went to Afghanistan and enlisted in the Taliban army because he believed it was "my religious duty to assist my fellow Muslims militarily in their jihad against the Northern Alliance," the Taliban's internal Afghan enemies who eventually fought alongside the United States.
Government officials said Lindh and other al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners told U.S. interrogators the Sept. 11 hijackings were supposed to be the first of three increasingly severe attacks against Americans. Their claims have not been corroborated, government officials said.
Ellis said he is troubled that there were two separate accounts of when Lindh heard rumors that 50 terrorists would be sent on suicide operations. The original indictment said Lindh heard that information before Sept. 11, but Lindh has contended he heard it after the attacks.
Ellis suggested that Lindh address the discrepancy during the sentencing hearing, but he never did.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Bellows told the judge that Lindh is still being interrogated and when the interviews are completed, he will take a lie detector test. Ellis said he would take the unusual step of ordering that the polygraph results be made public.