ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The expected release of Wen Ho Lee was postponed Monday and a day of high expectations for the jailed nuclear scientist and his family gave way to dashed hopes as lawyers continued to negotiate a plea agreement.
The agreement between federal prosecutors and Lee's attorneys was to have been announced in an afternoon proceeding here. But twice U.S. District Court Judge James A. Parker convened his court only to announce that attorneys for both sides had requested a recess. Three hours after the process began -- about the time Lee was expected at a block party thrown by his neighbors in White Rock, N.M. -- a visibly perturbed Parker announced from the bench that the hearing would convene Wednesday. He gave no reason for the delay.
Lee's family and friends, who had packed the courtroom expecting to celebrate his release, appeared shocked. His family was quickly ushered from the courtroom with his daughter, Alberta, in tears.
Many in the audience applauded when the diminutive former Los Alamos scientist was led away, and there was a shout of "Hang in there, Dr. Lee!"
The Taiwan-born scientist had been charged with 59 counts of stealing the "crown jewels" of the country's nuclear weapons secrets, according to prosecutors. The plea agreement, which had been hammered out after several weeks of discussions with the Justice Department and the FBI, called for Lee to plead guilty to one felony count and to promise cooperation with government investigators. He then was to have been unconditionally released.
The day's legal brinkmanship was familiar for the jailed scientist. Lee was within 15 minutes of release on Sept. 3 when Parker was handed a faxed notice of a government appeal of the terms of Lee's bail. The judge read the document out loud in court only five minutes before Lee was to be reunited with his family.
No family member commented on Monday's events but friends and neighbors who had driven nearly two hours from White Rock were disappointed and emotionally exhausted.
Don and Jean Marshall, neighbors who offered their home to help Lee raise money for bail, had planned to host a welcome home party. Now, they said, once again the celebration would be put on hold.
"As my wife said, 'How can you write the sound of tears?' " Marshall said. "It's so disappointing. We all just want him to come home."
Attorneys in the case rushed through a cordon of reporters on their way out of the courthouse. None would comment on the apparent last-minute haggling over the terms of Lee's release.
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