LAX bombing plotter's 22-year sentence overturned as too lenient
A 22-year sentence given an Al Qaeda-trained Algerian terrorist for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport was unreasonably lenient, a federal appeals court ruled Monday in overturning the term.
Disputes over the appropriate punishment for Ahmed Ressam have roiled the federal courts for more than a decade, as the young Algerian captured with a trunkload of explosives when he entered the United States initially cooperated with U.S. counterterrorism agents in exposing the inner workings of the global terror network and testifying against other captured militants.
But Ressam ceased cooperating with national security agents after two years, citing a fading memory of details and psychological damage from the harsh and isolated confinement at a federal lockup in Seattle.
When a federal judge in Seattle sentenced Ressam to 22 years in 2005 -- a drastic departure from the federal sentencing guidelines range of 65 years to life for the offenses on which he was convicted -- the government appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court threw out the 22-year sentence on procedural grounds in 2008, a ruling overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and sent back to the Seattle judge. After U.S. District Judge John Coughenour issued the same sentence three years ago, blaming Ressam's decision to cease cooperating on the severe conditions of his detention, a 9th Circuit panel again struck down the term and sent the case to a different district court for resentencing.
That order was put on hold when the full 9th Circuit agreed to reconsider the case, leading to Monday’s ruling that 22 years was too light a sentence for the serious terrorism offenses for which Ressam was convicted.
The 11-judge panel dominated by appointees of Democratic presidents said a more appropriate sentence would be in the range set by the federal guidelines, suggesting that Ressam remain in prison for what is likely to be the rest of his life. In the 7-4 ruling, the dissenting judges said the district court's judgment should be respected.
Ressam would be only 51 when released from prison if the 22-year sentence was left in place, the appeals court majority noted. The majority agreed with the government that national security could be in jeopardy if Ressam were freed at that age.
The Algerian-born militant was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., on Dec. 14, 1999, after arousing the suspicions of a U.S. customs agent as he drove a rental car off of a ferry arriving from a remote port in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Investigators found powerful explosives hidden in the wheel well of the rental car and other evidence of the planned terror plot that was used to convict him in 2001.
-- Carol J. Williams
Photo: A police photo of Ahmed Ressam. Credit: Le Journal de Montreal / Associated Press