Monday, August 18, 2008
Ninth Circuit Sends ‘Millenium Bomber’ Case Back for Resentencing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A federal district judge will have to reconsider the 22-year sentence imposed on the so-called “Millennium Bomber,” the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday.
In a brief order, the panel said the case must go back to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington because the original sentence was imposed without first calculating an advisory sentence under the Sentencing Guidelines.
The defendant, Ahmed Ressam, is an Algerian national convicted of plotting to detonate explosives at Los Angeles International Airport while Americans celebrated the beginning of the year 2000. Federal prosecutors appealed the original sentence as unusually lenient, an issue that was not decided on appeal because it was subsidiary to a question regarding the substance of one of the charges.
Among the charges of which Ressam was convicted was carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony. But since the underlying felony, lying on a customs declaration, had nothing to do with the explosive, the defense argued, the statute did not apply.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, but the Supreme Court reversed and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit, setting the stage for Friday’s remand order.
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.
Besides the disputed explosive possession charge and the underlying customs charge, Ressam was convicted of international terrorism, placing explosives in proximity to a ferry terminal, possessing false identification, using a fictitious name, smuggling and transportation of explosives, and illegal possession of a destructive device.
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 he had given earlier warranted sentencing him to 10 years. District Judge John Coughenour, who now has senior status, sentenced him to 22 years, and both sides appealed.
The government argued 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.
The Ninth Circuit panel said 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.
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