Dispute by Lawyers Delays Guilty Plea by Wen Ho Lee

James Sterngold - The New York Times - September 12, 2000

ALBUQUERQUE A last-minute dispute between the government and defense lawyers over a plea agreement for Wen Ho Lee, the former Los Alamos scientist accused of mishandling nuclear secrets, delayed for at least two days a guilty plea that would allow him to walk out of court a free man.

Neither side would explain the delay, which left members of Dr. Lee's family looking despondent. The federal district judge handling the case, James A. Parker, said the hearing was scheduled to resume on Wednesday morning, but "we may have and may not have it depending on what happens in the interim."

Several dozen supporters of Dr. Lee stood briefly in shock, and then someone shouted out, "Hang in there Dr. Lee!" That prompted several minutes of applause in the courtroom.

It was a surprising twist to what was already a surprise ending to this important national security case. A hearing had been set for 2 p.m. today to conclude a plea agreement worked out in secret in recent weeks and reported on Sunday.

Initially, Dr. Lee, a former Los Alamos scientist, had been investigated on suspicions that he had spied for China. When he was arrested in December, though, he was charged in a 59-count indictment with illegally downloading a trove of data about weapons secrets with the intent of harming the United States, not with espionage. He was denied bail because of government assertions that he posed a grave threat to national security.

Over the weekend lawyers said that the government had agreed to abandon almost its entire case after several courtroom decisions went against them. They said that Dr. Lee had agreed to plead guilty to one felony charge that he illegally gathered and retained nuclear weapons secrets, and to cooperate with investigators trying to determine why he downloaded the secrets and what he did with them.

In return, they said, the government had agreed to drop the other 58 charges, which could have resulted in a life sentence. Under the agreement, Dr. Lee would be released immediately, pay no fine and serve no probation, lawyers familiar with the agreement said.

Dr. Lee's family and supporters insisted from the time of his arrest that he was innocent and that he had been singled out because he was Chinese-American.

A party was planned on Dr. Lee's street near Los Alamos, and several dozen supporters showed up in court to cheer his expected walk to freedom after nine months in prison.

"We just wanted Americans to see Wen Ho Lee come home," said Jean Marshall, one of his neighbors and an organizer of the party.

But the expectant mood in the courtroom slowly turned into exasperation after a series of delays. Judge Parker twice recessed court, each time saying that the two sides had requested a one-hour delay to conclude some details.

When court went back into session at 5 p.m., a glum Judge Parker said only that the terms had not been finalized and that the hearing would resume on Wednesday. And, he added, that would depend on whether the lawyers could reach agreement.

"There are a few details to work out," said John Cline, one of Dr. Lee's lawyers.

Prosecutors would not comment.

"We're obviously very upset," said Dr. Lee's son, Chung. "We don't know what's going on. We hope and expect to see our dad on Wednesday."

Asked if she was frustrated, dr. Lee's daughter, Alberta, who seemed near tears as the hearing ended, remarked, "I think it shows on our faces."

Chung Lee said the applause had heartened his father.

"He's a strong guy and he's very encouraged and he was encouraged by all the supporters," Chung Lee said. "I think it was very heartwarming for him to see all the supporters out there."

Lawyers insisted that the judge had told both sides not to discuss the problems publicly and they would provide no information on what was holding up the plea agreement. On Sunday, lawyers for the government and defense lawyers had said that a deal had been completed and that the terms had been agreed upon in detail.

When Dr. Lee was arrested, the government said that he had downloaded the "crown jewels" of the nuclear weapons program onto an unsecure computer and then to 10 computer tapes. The downloading was discovered after Dr. Lee was fired from his job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in March 1999. The government found just 3 of the 10 tapes, and Dr. Lee later said through his lawyers that he had destroyed the other 7.

But the government said that uncertainty over the fate of those tapes, and the prospect that Dr. Lee might try to spirit them to a foreign power, required his incarceration pending his trial.

Initially, Judge Parker agreed, but he reversed his decision last month after an F.B.I. agent recanted testimony about Dr. Lee's supposed deceptive behavior. Also, defense experts disputed the value of the information Dr. Lee had downloaded, saying that most of it was already in the public domain and all but useless to another country.

Government officials said in Washington on Sunday that those reverses had not motivated them to cut a plea deal, but it was clear that the case was looking weaker. The trial had been scheduled for November.

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