SEATTLE – The Justice Department says there is “precious little” to explain why Ahmed Ressam received a sentence of only 22 years for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium. Ressam’s lawyers say the sentence was a decade too long.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear their arguments today. Both sides are challenging aspects of the punishment U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour imposed last year. Ressam’s lawyers, Thomas Hillier and Michael Filipovic, believe that one of the nine counts he was convicted of should be thrown out, which would reduce the sentence by 10 years.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has suggested that Coughenour’s decision to sentence Ressam to less than the 35 years it requested may have been colored by a distaste for the Bush administration’s treatment of “enemy combatants.”
In their appeal, prosecutors repeatedly cited Coughenour’s comments at sentencing, when he said Ressam’s case illustrated that U.S. courts are plenty capable of handling terrorism cases.
“We did not need to use a secret military tribunal,” the judge said at the time, “or detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant, or deny him the right to counsel, or invoke any proceedings beyond those guaranteed by or contrary to the United States Constitution.”
Customs agents in Port Angeles, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Canada, caught Ressam with explosives in the trunk of his rental car when he arrived by ferry in December 1999. The arrest prompted the cancellation of millennium celebrations at Seattle’s Space Needle.
He was convicted of terrorism and explosives charges at trial in 2001, then decided to tell investigators what he knew about al-Qaida in an effort to receive a shorter sentence.
“We believe the district court seriously erred in straying so far from what would have been the advisory guideline sentence, which was 65 years to life,” U.S. Attorney John McKay said.
“Even taking into account his cooperation, the sentence was far too short. Ressam has told us he intended to kill as many people as he could at the Los Angeles airport. That’s what he should be sentenced for.”
Coughenour noted that before the trial, the government offered Ressam the chance to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of 25 years, with no cooperation required; the judge reasoned that 25 years represented the government’s assessment of Ressam’s crime, and any cooperation he later provided should be discounted from that.
The government disagreed, saying that because Ressam didn’t accept the 25-year offer, it shouldn’t factor into the court’s decision.
Ressam’s testimony helped convict one of his co-conspirators, but his cooperation came to a halt by early 2003. Years of solitary confinement, broken by periods of intense interrogation, had taken their toll on his mental health and corrupted his memory, his lawyers insisted.
The government didn’t buy it and was furious that without further help, it had to dismiss cases against two of Ressam’s alleged co-conspirators, Samir Ait Mohamed and Abu Doha.
On appeal, Ressam’s lawyers are arguing against his conviction on one count of carrying explosives during a felony. The felony was providing a false name and other information to customs agents.
Hillier says that during trial, jurors were not asked to find that Ressam carried the explosives “in furtherance of” providing the false information, as he says the law requires. The crime carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.