A federal appeals court panel today overturned the 22-year prison sentence of an Algerian man who plotted to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the year 2000, ruling that the prison term should have been longer.
A divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited procedural errors in rejecting the sentence given to Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, at a ferry terminal in Port Angeles, Wash., after crossing from British Columbia, Canada in a rented sedan with explosives in the trunk.
The panel ordered that Ressam be re-sentenced by another federal judge in Seattle, calling the current sentence "both procedurally and substantively unreasonable."
Ressam had been watched by Royal Canadian Mounted Police for at least two years for known association with suspected al-Qaida operatives.
Ressam was recruited by al-Qaida and trained to build bombs in Afghanistan. He was one of four militants identified as part of the plot to set off explosions at public venues during the New Year's Eve celebrations ushering in 2000.
Ressam cooperated with interrogators after his 2001 conviction, providing federal agents with information on other al-Qaida operatives, including alleged co-conspirators held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
His 22-year sentence, including a 10-year minimum applied for carrying explosives during the commission of a felony, was imposed by U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle in 2005. It was the middle ground between the 35 years requested by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the 12 1/2 years proposed by Ressam's federal public defenders.
The appeals court ruled today that Coughenour committed procedural error "in imposing a sentence that is well below the advisory sentencing guidelines range."
Ressam had been tried and convicted in Los Angeles, after his case was moved out of Seattle due to pre-trial publicity.
His sentence has been challenged multiple times since 2005. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January 2007 that Ressam's sentencing should be recalculated. In May of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the 9th Circuit, reinstating the full 22 years.
In August 2008, the 9th Circuit again overturned Ressam's sentencing, but at a re-sentencing hearing in December of that year, Coughenour rejected prosecutors' request for a life prison term and instead re-imposed the 22-year sentence.
In today's 2-1 ruling the 9th Circuit panel ordered that Ressam's next re-sentencing be handled by a judge other than Coughenour, ruling that the judge had committed various procedural errors in the sentencing.
"The district judge's previously expressed views appear too entrenched to allow for the appearance of fairness on remand," the appellate panel wrote. "For these reasons, we direct that the case be reassigned to a different judge for re-sentencing."
A spokeswoman for Ressam's public defense attorney in Seattle said the lawyer was not taking calls from the media.
Ressam, now 42, is incarcerated at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo.