Monday, December 10, 2007
U.S. High Court to Review Ruling in ‘Millenium Bomber’ Case
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to review a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that could result in a sentence reduction for Ahmed Ressam, convicted of plotting to detonate explosives at Los Angeles International Airport while Americans celebrated the dawning of the 21st Century.
The Algerian national, dubbed the “Millennium Bomber,” is serving a 22-year sentence imposed by a federal judge in Seattle after he was convicted of international terrorism, placing explosives in proximity to a ferry terminal, possessing false identification, using a fictitious name, falsely identifying himself on a customs declaration form, smuggling and transportation of explosives, illegal possession of a destructive device, and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony.
The government asked the high court to resolve a conflict between the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that a defendant cannot be convicted of carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony absent a relationship between the act of possessing explosives and the underlying felony, and three contrary rulings in other circuits.
The underlying felony in Ressam’s case was lying about his identity on his customs declaration. Under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 844(h)(2), the explosives charge carries a mandatory 10-year sentence, in addition to the penalty imposed for the underlying offense.
The government also claims that the sentence was unreasonably lenient for a terrorist plot that prompted the cancellation of New Year’s celebrations at Seattle’s Space Needle and could have killed hundreds of people had the explosives been detonated at LAX while it was filled with holiday travelers.
Ressam was arrested after crossing into Washington state from Canada by ferry. A suspicious customs inspector initiated an intensive search of his vehicle, which revealed the explosives.
Investigators discovered that Ressam had been turned down for asylum in Canada but was allowed to stay in that country due to a moratorium on deportations to his homeland. He trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan before returning to Canada, where he continued to work on the Millennium plot, in February 1999.
Facing a sentence of about 65 years in prison after his conviction, he began cooperating with authorities, although he stopped doing so in early 2003. His sentencing was delayed until 2005 as the government unsuccessfully sought further assistance from him.
Citing his lack of further cooperation, the government recommended a sentence of 35 years, while defense counsel argued that the cooperation had had given earlier warranted sentencing him to 10 years. District Judge John Coughenour sentenced him to 22 years, and both sides appealed.
In agreeing that Sec. 844(h)(2) contains an “in relation to” requirement, Ninth Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, joined by Judge Marsha Berzon, cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that applied such a requirement to a similar statute involving possession of a firearm.
The panel majority also said that it was unnecessary to rule on the government’s sentence appeal, saying the district judge should review the sentence on remand in light of changes in sentencing law since 2005.
Senior Judge Arthur Alarcon dissented, arguing that the conviction should be affirmed on all counts and that the judge’s sentencing order failed to justify leniency.
The Ninth Circuit denied en banc review, over the dissent of Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, joined by Judges Andrew Kleinfeld, Ronald Gould, Jay Bybee, Consuelo Callahan, and Carlos Bea.
The Supreme Court case cited by Rymer isn’t controlling, O’Scannlain argued, because the two statutes have significant differences in wording, and the explosives provision lacks the “relational element” of the gun law.
Solicitor General Paul Clement urged the high court to side with those courts holding that the government need only prove that the explosives possession and the underlying felony occurred at the same time, and said it would be much harder to prosecute terrorists if the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation is allowed to stand.
Arguments probably will take place in March.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company