SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals court said Tuesday a 22-year prison sentence was too lenient for an al-Qaida-trained terrorist convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the end of the millennium.
A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Ahmed Ressam, 41, deserved 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.
The appeals court also took the rare step of removing from the case the Seattle trial judge who imposed the initial sentence because his “previously expressed views appear too entrenched to allow for the appearance of fairness.”
Federal guidelines suggest that 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.
Instead, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison, citing his two years of cooperation, and said Ressam’s “life history and personal characteristics support favorable sentencing consideration.”
The appeals court said Coughenour’s conclusions were “clearly erroneous,” and Ressam has an extensive criminal history. Writing for the majority court, Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon said the trial judge failed to take into account public safety with the 22-year prison sentence.
Circuit Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez dissented, writing that he would have respected Coughenour’s sentence.