In May 2019, the early release of convicted terrorist John Walker Lindh prompted concerns about whether the man known as the “American Taliban” had abandoned his extremist beliefs and support of violent Islamic terrorist groups, as the Associated Pressreported:
John Walker Lindh, the Californian who took up arms for the Taliban and was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001, got out of prison Thursday after more than 17 years, released under tight restrictions that reflected government fears he still harbors radical views…Lindh, 38, left a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, after getting time off for good behavior from the 20-year sentence he received when he pleaded guilty to providing support to the Taliban…
Under restrictions imposed by a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, Lindh’s internet devices must have monitoring software; his online communications must be conducted in English; he must undergo mental health counseling; he is forbidden to possess or view extremist material; and he cannot hold a passport or leave the U.S …
Probation officers never explained why they sought the restrictions against Lindh. But in 2017, Foreign Policy magazine cited a National Counterterrorism Center report that said Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.” On Wednesday, NBC reported that Lindh, in a letter to a producer from Los Angeles-based affiliate KNBC, wrote in 2015 that the Islamic State group was “doing a spectacular job.”
In the aftermath of Lindh’s release, a widely shared meme highlighted concerns about whether his punishment had been inadequate, especially when compared to the relatively severe sentences imposed for what would widely be regarded as lesser crimes.
The meme, posted by the left-leaning “Other 98%” page on 23 May, also suggested that Lindh’s case was part of a pattern of racial disparities and injustice in sentencing — a common theme of viral memes, some of which we have examined in the past. The meme contained photographs of Lindh, who is white, and a Michigan man Michael Alonzo Thompson, who is black, along with the following text:
A white man named John Lindh, aka ‘American Taliban’, is a known terrorist who fought for the Taliban and was part of an uprising that killed a CIA officer. He was released from prison this week after 17 years.
Michael Thompson, a black man, sold 3 lbs. of weed to a police informant. He’s been in a Michigan prison for 25 years. His record has been spotless during his time behind bars, but he won’t be eligible for parole for 15 more years.
The meme was even more widely promulgated when the “Friends of Farrakhan” page shared it on Facebook on 28 May.
The question of whether, and to what extent, race played a role in the sentencing decisions made in the cases of Lindh and Thompson is not one this article will address, in part precisely because the two men were convicted of such radically different crimes. Rather, what follows is our breakdown of the core and ancillary factual claims contained in the meme.
Crimes and Punishments
John Walker Lindh
U.S. forces captured Lindh in Afghanistan on 25 November 2001, after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The American, then aged 20, was captured and detained alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Hours later, those fighters conducted a coordinated and violent prison uprising during which Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann was shot dead, and dozens of Afghans were killed.
Lindh was brought back to the United States and charged in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, initially on 10 counts including conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, conspiracy to provide material support to foreign terrorist groups, contributing services to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, using and carrying firearms during acts of violence, and using explosives in the commission of a felony.
If he had been convicted on all those counts, Lindh would have been given a life sentence, but concerns over the treatment he received from U.S. forces during his transit from Afghanistan to the United States prompted prosecutors and Lindh’s attorneys to enter into a plea agreement in July 2002.
In 2004, the Los Angeles Times cited leaked documents and court filings containing claims that then-Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld’s staff had instructed Lindh’s American interrogators to “take the gloves off,” as well as allegations that the interrogators had stripped Lindh of his clothes, starved him, and threatened to kill him. The Department of Defense has denied claims that Lindh was mistreated.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped eight of the charges against Lindh, and he pleaded guilty to one count of supplying services to the Taliban and one count of using explosives in the commission of a felony. Lindh was also required to “put to rest his claims of mistreatment by the United States military.”
In October 2002, Judge T. S. Ellis honored the terms of the plea agreement and gave Lindh a 20-year prison sentence, to be followed by three years of supervised release. On 23 May 2019, Lindh was released from the federal correctional institution at Terre Haute, Indiana, three years before his scheduled release date, reportedly on the grounds of good behavior.
However, several observers, including the family of CIA agent Mike Spann, objected to Lindh’s early release, citing recent reports that suggested the 38-year-old had not abandoned his support for violent Islamic extremism.
In June 2017, Foreign Policy magazine reported that a leaked National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) memo had warned: “As of May 2016, John Walker Lindh (USPER) — who is scheduled to be released in May 2019 after being convicted of supporting the Taliban — continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.” In March 2016, the NCTC memo claimed, citing FBI intelligence reports, that Lindh “told a television news producer that he would continue to spread violent extremist Islam upon his release.”
In the lead-up to Lindh’s release in May 2019, Alison Spann — a television reporter for WLOX in Mississippi and the daughter of agent Spann — published an open letter to U.S. President Donald Trump, appealing to him to intervene against Lindh’s early release:
“My dad wasn’t the only American in that prison that day — there was another American who had turned against his own people to support radical extremists in their terror pursuits. An American who didn’t warn his fellow countryman of the uprising that was to come. An American who sat back while his fellow countryman was brutally murdered. An American who said nothing allowing a father of three, a husband, son, brother and friend to be killed at the hands of his terrorist friends. An American named John Walker Lindh … I am asking you to stop the early release of John Walker Lindh. The American Al Qaeda fighter should be made to serve his full sentence — one that pales in comparison to the one that so many families have had to pay in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.”
The factual claims made about Lindh’s case in the “Other 98%” meme were highly accurate. Lindh is indeed a white American known as the “American Taliban,” who fought with the Taliban and was convicted of terrorist offenses. He was indeed released from prison in May 2019 after serving 17 years in prison for his crimes, although the meme did not note that his original sentence was 20 years. The only substantive point of dispute is the claim that he “was part of” the Qala-i-Jangi uprising.
Lindh was undoubtedly present at the prison camp for the revolt and was one of the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters brought there after being captured. However, in their initial indictment against Lindh, prosecutors did not specifically accuse him of having taken up arms in the uprising, but with a related offense instead:
On or about November 25, 2001, Taliban detainees in the QIJ [Qala-i-Jang] compound attacked Spann and the other employee, overpowered the guards, and armed themselves. Spann was shot and killed in the violent attack. After being wounded, Lindh retreated with other detainees to a basement area of the QIJ compound. The bloody uprising took several days to suppress. From on or about November 25, 2001 through on or about December 1, 2001, Lindh remained in the basement area of QIJ with other Taliban and al Qaeda fighters until their recapture.
Notably, the indictment added that Lindh’s convalescence in the basement of the compound amounted to a violation of U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2332 (b)(2), meaning that he had been a “co-conspirator after the fact” in an endeavor that killed a U.S. national, namely C.I.A. agent Mike Spann.
However, that particular charge was later dropped as part of the plea agreement, and so it cannot unambiguously be stated that Lindh “was part of the uprising” that killed Spann as opposed to being present (and recovering from a gunshot wound) for its duration.
Michael Alonzo Thompson
In May 1996, 45-year-old Michael Alonzo “Meeko” Thompson was convicted and sentenced at Genesee District Court in Michigan on five charges: possession with intent to deliver marijuana; conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver marijuana; delivery of marijuana; possession of a weapon by a convicted felon; and possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony.
Right away, it should be noted that the “Other 98%” meme was misleading in their description of Thompson’s crimes, claiming that he “sold 3 lbs of weed to a police informant.” That drug offense wasn’t the basis of the very lengthy sentence Thompson received; rather, he was sentenced to between 40 and 60 years in prison based on a weapons conviction, which was exacerbated by the fact that Thompson was already a thrice-convicted felon — two important and relevant facts the meme omitted.
For the three drug offenses, the statutory maximum penalty was four years in prison and a fine of up to $2,000. For possession of a firearm in the act of a felony, the maximum sentence was two years. For possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the maximum penalty was five years in prison.;
However, Thompson was charged as a “fourth habitual offender” under Michigan law, because by that time he already had three previous felony convictions for drug-related offenses dating back to the 1980s on his record, including conspiracy to bring contraband into prison. As a result of the prosecutors’ application of the habitual offender law, four of the sentences imposed on Thompson were significantly lengthened in accordance with Michigan law.
For the three drugs offenses, Thompson received a 15-year prison sentence, which was completed in 2011. For possession of a firearm in the act of a felony, he received the regular two-year sentence. However, for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, Thompson received a sentence of between 40 and 60 years in prison.
Thompson appealed his convictions, but in December 1998 the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld them. In their ruling, the court outlined the events of 19 December 1994 and Thompson’s role in them:
On December 19, 1994, an informant working with the Flint Area Narcotics Group (FANG) arranged to purchase three pounds of marijuana from [Thompson]… After the informant arranged to purchase the marijuana from [Thompson] for $4,200, he contacted Lieutenant Compeau of FANG, informing him of the arrangement. Compeau met with the informant, giving him $4,200. The informant left the meeting place and drove to [Thompson’s] home.
The informant gave [Thompson] the money, and [Thompson] told the informant that he would “take care of” the informant, but that he had to go to his safe house and would then be at the informant’s house after a short time. After the informant left [Thompson’s] house, a FANG surveillance team followed [Thompson] to a condominium owned by Bethany Gayden …
A short time after the informant returned home, [Thompson] drove up in his car and beeped the horn. The informant went out to the car, got in and took a grocery bag that was sitting on the passenger-side floor. He took the bag into his home. After [Thompson] drove away, Compeau arrived at the informant’s home. He went inside. The informant pointed out a grocery bag. Campeau opened the bag and saw that it contained marijuana. He made a quick search of the house and left with the bag of marijuana.
After [Thompson] left Gayden’s, FANG members searched the condominium with Gayden’s consent. The officers found a duffel bag of marijuana and a box containing an electronic scale in a closet in Gayden’s spare bedroom and a duffel bag containing a large sum of money, including the buy money in a closet in Gayden’s bedroom.
Officers stopped [Thompson] in his car shortly after he left the informant’s home around 9 pm and arrested him. They found no weapons or drugs on [Thompson] or in his car. FANG members then met for a briefing and obtained a search warrant for [Thompson’s] home. The home was searched at midnight, and police seized a number of guns.
Along with the use of “habitual offender” sentencing guidelines, perhaps the most controversial aspect of Thompson’s case was that he was convicted of possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and possession of a weapon in the commission of a felony (the drug deal), despite the fact that he did not have a weapon on his person when the drugs and money actually changed hands.
The Court of Appeals addressed this issue in their ruling, explaining the somewhat complicated reasoning behind the principle of “constructive possession” and citing a 1995 Court of Appeals decision in People vs Williams:
During the search of [Thompson’s] home, officers seized several guns. They found a .357 between the mattresses of the bed in the master bedroom and a .32 caliber gun in the master bedroom closet. The officers seized other guns from a locked closet in the second story of [Thompson’s] home. [Thompson’s] wife, Bridgit, asserted that she owned the .357 caliber and typically kept it in the locked closet. She said that the officers found the gun on her side of the bed. She also claimed that [Thompson] purchased the .32 caliber for his father, who ultimately gave the gun to her. Bridgit also claimed ownership of the remaining guns …
A defendant may have actual or constructive possession of a firearm … Constructive possession is established if the defendant knows the location of the firearm and it is reasonably accessible to the defendant … As explained in Ben Williams, the purpose of the felony-firearm statute is to “reduce the possibility of injury to victims, passersby and police officers … The mere fact that a felon has a firearm at his disposal, should he need it, creates a sufficient enough risk to others that it is within the state’s power to punish its possession.”
The court decided that because Thompson had access to the guns in his house as the informant handed him $4,200 there, and he received money on the understanding that drugs would be provided in exchange for it (part of the “delivery of marijuana” offense), Thompson therefore had constructive possession of those firearms while he was, in effect, committing a felony: “One who possesses a firearm while collecting payment for a controlled substance that will soon be delivered in exchange for that payment can be convicted of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony even though the controlled substance and the firearm are never actually possessed at the same time.”
Thompson also appealed his 40-60 year prison sentence, claiming that it was so disproportionate that it amounted to a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court of Appeals members described the sentence as “quite severe” but did not find that the District Court had abused the discretion given to it by the sentencing guidelines contained in Michigan’s “habitual offender” statute:
[Thompson] asserts that because the underlying offense of felon-in-possession is punishable by a maximum of only five years; the weapons were not used in the commission of any offense, belonged to his wife, and were for the most part found in a locked closet; and defendant had no notice that he was not permitted to possess firearms, the forty to sixty year sentence is cruel and unusual.
While we agree that [Thompson’s] forty to sixty year sentence is quite severe and would likely have opted for a lesser minimum term ourselves, we are unable to conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in imposing such a lengthy term. [Thompson] had been convicted three times of cocaine-related offenses, once of conspiracy to bring contraband into prison, and once of possession of a fraudulent financial transaction device. The court noted that his first offense was in 1982 and that he had had continuous involvement with the criminal justice system for fourteen years at the time of sentencing. The court further observed that many of the offenses were committed while [Thompson] was on probation, parole or in prison, and that the purpose of the habitual offender provisions “is to provide for a longer sentence where a defendant has shown a persistent commission of crime and indifference to the law.”
The remaining factual claims in the “Other 98%” meme were accurate, though not perfectly so.
In response to our inquiries, the Michigan Department of Corrections told us that since 1994, Thompson’s prison record showed just two instances of minor misconduct, the most recent of which occurred in 2006 and was an “out of place” incident, meaning Thompson was briefly in a part of the prison where he should not have been. Although his behavioral record has not quite been “spotless,” as the meme claimed, it appears to have been more than satisfactory.
Thompson was arrested in December 1994 and has been in prison for the past 24 years and five months, meaning the “Other 98” meme was almost fully accurate in stating that Thompson had “been in a Michigan prison for 25 years.”
Finally, according to Michigan Department of Corrections records, Thompson cannot undergo a parole hearing until April 2038, which was in 19 years’ time when the “Other 98” meme was published — contrary to the claim that Thompson “won’t be eligible for parole for 15 more years.” In fact, he will have to wait even longer than 15 years, so the meme actually slightly understated the case. As of May 2019, Thompson was 68 years old; at the latest, he might not be released until February 2047, by which time he would be 95 years old.