ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The expected release of Wen Ho Lee was delayed Monday as prosecutors and Lee's defense team haggled over a plea deal that would release the jailed Los Alamos nuclear scientist.
U.S. District Judge James Parker gave no reason for putting off a scheduled court hearing until Wednesday.
''I must regretfully say that we cannot proceed with the hearing this afternoon,'' the judge said.
Lee's daughter, Alberta, left the packed courtroom in tears and her mother, Sylvia, appeared dazed.
Parker had said a few hours earlier that both sides were discussing possible amendments to the plea agreement, which would end what has proven to be an embarrassing case to the government. The lawyers were not immediately available to comment.
According to government sources, Lee had agreed to plead guilty to only one of 59 counts accusing him of violating national security. His sentence was to be the nine months he has already served in solitary confinement.
In exchange for his freedom, Lee was expected to explain what he knows about seven computer tapes he was accused of downloading. Lee - whose defense contended he was targeted only because he is ethnic Chinese - has insisted the tapes were destroyed at the lab. His willingness to explain in more detail what happened was described as the turning point in 2-month-old plea discussions.
''The issue here is - are we getting the tapes back and we find out what happened to those tapes. I think that is the key,'' Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., before the postponement was announced. ''The plea bargain enables us to get that information.''
The three-year case began as an offshoot of a Chinese espionage case and led to accusations that the 60-year-old Lee had downloaded the ''crown jewels'' of U.S. nuclear weaponry and might be poised to hand them over to a foreign power.
The government has since backed down from nearly all those charges. Government sources said Lee agreed over the weekend to plead guilty to one count of unlawful gathering of national defense information, aid federal investigators over the next six months and drop claims that prosecutors went after him because he is Chinese-American. Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Taiwan.
''He deserves a national apology,'' said John Vance, a safety engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. ''The president of the United States should call him in and apologize on national television for the damage that's done.''
The lab considers Lee, who worked for the lab for more than 21 years, as retired. A spokesman said Lee is getting a pension.
Lee was fired from his Los Alamos job in March 1999 and nine months later was formally accused of downloading restricted nuclear data to unsecured computers and tapes. Lee has been jailed since Dec. 10 and faced life in prison if convicted of all 59 counts.
The case began disintegrating last month at Lee's latest bail hearing. FBI agent Robert Messemer, whose testimony was key in denying Lee bail originally, said he repeatedly erred in that testimony.
Scientists, including a former Los Alamos lab director, also weighed in on the side of the defense, dismissing the importance of the information Lee was accused of mishandling. One scientist said ''99 percent'' of the information was available anywhere.
A week later, Parker agreed to release Lee on $1 million bail, saying information presented by the government ''no longer has the requisite clarity and persuasive character necessary'' to keep Lee in jail until trial. He ordered both sides to negotiate final conditions for Lee's release.
Soon after that, Parker ordered the government to produce documents to help determine whether Lee was targeted because of his race - and he outlined his reasons for favoring bail.
''What the government described in December 1999 as the 'crown jewels' of the United States nuclear weapons program no longer is so clearly deserving of that label,'' he wrote.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said he believes Lee was jailed without bail only to elicit a guilty plea.
''This case stinks,'' Dershowitz said, ''and the resolution doesn't make it smell any better. It only makes the contestants happy, but it shouldn't make the public happy ...It is un-American.''
For the second time, Lee's neighbors had to scrap plans for a welcome-home party. Homes were decked out in American flags, red, white and blue ribbons and signs of support and welcome.
''It's devastating,'' added Jean Marshall, Don's wife. ''Can you write the sound of tears?''
She added: ''Our enthusiasm for his homecoming has not dimmed. I believe that America is watching, and I think justice in the end will prevail.''
On the Net:
Supporters of Lee: http://www.wenholee.org
Department of Justice: http://www.usdoj.gov
Los Alamos National Laboratory: http://www.lanl.gov/worldview