SAN RAFAEL, Calif. – In the suburbs outside San Francisco that John Walker Lindh spurned years ago, residents who knew him reacted with mixed emotions after learning the American Taliban will be spared the death penalty.
Some, like Ebrahim Nana, said they were relieved Lindh only faces trial in civilian court. Others, like Alam Madina, said Lindh put himself in his predicament and "he's got to deal with it."
After weeks of deliberation, the Bush administration said Tuesday it has decided to charge Lindh with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and to try the case in the civilian criminal justice system. The administration had considered charging him with treason, which carries the death penalty.
Court documents indicate that Lindh learned a full three months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that Usama bin Laden had dispatched suicide squads to the United States. In Afghanistan, Lindh's rifle malfunctioned, he was bombed by U.S. planes before surrendering, then was shot in the leg during a violent prison uprising.
The announcement that charges were filed brought a mixture of gratitude and frustration to Lindh's parents. They knew their son would not be put to death, but also realized he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
"We are grateful to live in a nation that presumes innocence and withholds judgment until all of the facts are presented," Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh said in a statement issued through their attorney.
Many in upscale Marin County, which Lindh left in 1998, balanced their views of the 20-year-old American Taliban with the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I know his parents must be upset. It seems like they worked very hard to raise a good kid. As a parent I think about that," said Paul Herrerias, whose daughter goes to school with Lindh's younger sister. "But I guess he's old enough to take responsibility for his decisions."
Others weren't so sure. Nana, a leader of the Islamic Center of Mill Valley where Lindh used to worship, said he was disappointed charges were even filed.
"He got in a position where it might not have been easy for him to get away. When you're in the middle of a war it's not easy to stand up and say 'I'm going to the other side now,"' Nana said. "While he was there, the good guys became the bad guys, and the bad guys became the good guys."
But Madina, of San Anselmo, whose son went to the same high school as Lindh, said she has difficulty believing Lindh didn't understand the consequences of working with the Taliban.
"I have a hard time believing that he didn't understand that he was putting himself in jeopardy, and usually when you put yourself in jeopardy you have to face some consequences from somewhere, be it courts or karma," she said. "He's got to deal with it."
San Anselmo accountant Paul Chasnoff agreed, saying he had no problem with the Justice Department's decision to seek life in prison for Lindh.
"I don't really have a whole lot of sympathy for him, and I have even less sympathy for his parents," Chasnoff said. "I think somewhere along the line, guidance was lost."
Friends have described Lindh as an intelligent young man who wore full-length robes to high school and went by the name "Suleyman" after his conversion to Islam as a teen.
Steven Hyland met Lindh in 1998 while both studied abroad at the Yemen Language Center. Hyland said he's bothered by the severity of the charges Lindh now faces.
"I am concerned for the kid," Hyland said from his Texas home. "He was a very naive kid, and now 31/2 years later he is looking at 60 years incarceration."
In the parents' statement, they thanked U.S. military officials for the medical care their son has received since being captured in December in Afghanistan.
"We are anxious to see him, to know his condition firsthand and to tell him we love him," the parents said. "We now hope that we will see our son soon and give him the love and support he needs."