Court Rules That Sentence for Millennium Terror Plotter Is Too Lenient
February 3, 2010 - 9:50 AMThe long legal battle of an al-Qaida-trained terrorist convicted in an attempted bombing on the millennium has taken another turn after an appeals court threw out his sentence and removed the trial judge from the case.
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Tuesday said Ahmed Ressam's 22-year prison sentence is too lenient. Border agents in Washington State arrested the Algerian national in 1999 after he entered the United States from Canada on a ferry with a car packed with explosives. He was convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
The appeals court also said Tuesday that it's taking the rare step of assigning the case to another trial judge because it doubts U.S. District Judge John Coughenour's impartiality in the matter.
Coughenour presided over the case for a decade. Twice, over the objections of prosecutors, he sentenced the "millennium bomber" to 22 years in prison.
Coughenour, appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, declined to comment when reached in his Seattle chambers Tuesday. But the ruling is seen as a strong rebuke of his handling of the case, which the semiretired jurist said was one of his toughest during a 2008 court session.
Fixing a sentence for Ressam "is a decision I struggled with more than any other sentencing decision I have made in my 27 years on the bench," Coughenour said in December 2008. The judge said he had to weigh the cooperation Ressam provided against the nature of his crime.
On Tuesday, the appeals court said Ressam has an extensive criminal history and Coughenour's conclusions were "clearly erroneous." Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon said the Coughenour failed to take into account public safety with the 22-year prison sentence.
"This factor is particularly relevant in a terrorist case such as this, where Ressam, who has demonstrated strongly held beliefs about the need to attack American interests in the United States and abroad, will be only 53 years old upon his release," Alarcon wrote.
Ressam's case will be randomly assigned to another federal judge in Seattle in the coming weeks and it's expected that the Algerian national will receive a harsher sentence.
A divided three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled Ressam, 41, deserves a much longer prison term because he had reneged on a deal to cooperate with terrorism investigators around the world.
U.S. prosecutors said Ressam's change-of-heart after two years of cooperation compromised at least two terrorist cases in the U.S., resulting in charges being dropped.
"We are gratified that the Court of Appeals recognized the importance of public safety at sentencing and that Mr. Ressam remains a threat to the public," said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan of Seattle.
Ressam's public defender Thomas W. Hillier II declined comment.
Federal guidelines suggest Ressam should receive a prison sentence of 65 years to life after a jury convicted him of attempting to smuggle explosives meant for LAX across the Canada border in a rental car in December 1999.
Prosecutors argued for life in prison during a 2008 hearing held after Ressam recanted his cooperation and insisted that lawyers and prosecutors had badgered him into making false allegations against other alleged terrorists.
"Sentence me to life in prison or anything you wish," Ressam told the judge. "I will have no objection to your sentence. Thank you."
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the trial judge to impose a new sentence based on the federal guidelines.
Investigators say Ressam attended three training camps for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan between March 1998 and February 1999. He learned to handle weapons, construct bombs and the black art of sabotage before he was assigned with five other terrorist to a cell to be based in Montreal.
Ressam traveled to Canada in February 1999 with $12,000 in cash, bomb-making instructions and a key chemical used in explosives. The other members of his cell didn't make it to Canada, but Ressam continued plans to bomb LAX.
Ressam hid 100 pounds of explosive materials in the wheel well in the trunk of a rental car, and on Dec. 14, 1999 drove it on to the American ferry M/V COHO at Victoria, B.C. He also was carrying a bogus Canadian passport.
A U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agent didn't discover the explosives during a search of the car and allowed Ressam to board the ferry and travel to Port Angeles, Wash.
When Ressam arrived at the U.S. port, suspicious U.S. Customs inspector Diane Dean ordered the rental car searched. This time the explosives, complete with four timing devices, were found and Ressam was arrested.
"An explosives expert later determined that the materials found in the car were capable of producing a blast forty times greater than that of a devastating car bomb," Alarcon wrote for the appeals court.
Ressam rejected the government's offer of 25 years in prison if he pleaded guilty to nine felony charges, including conspiracy to commit an international act of terrorism transcending national boundaries.
Because of intense local publicity, the case was moved to Los Angeles, where a jury convicted Ressam on all counts on April 16, 2001.
Two months later, in exchange for a more lenient sentence, Ressam agreed to cooperate with the prosecution of his accomplice and provide any other information he had on terrorists plots to kill Americans.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Ressam also identified Zacarias Moussaoui from a photograph as someone he met in an Afghan terrorist camp. He also provided information showing that the shoe confiscated from Richard Reid -- the so-called "shoe bomber" -- was a complete bomb that should be handled cautiously.
Associated Press Writer Gene Johnson contributed to this report from Seattle.
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