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August 4, 2011

En banc Ninth Circuit to consider reasonableness of millennium bomber sentence

As detailed in this Seattle Times piece, headlined "Court to reconsider Ahmed Ressam's sentence in millennium plot," the federal sentencing debate over a terrorist is going en banc in the Ninth Circuit.  Here are the details:

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will once again consider whether the 22-year prison sentence imposed on would-be millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam by a federal judge in Seattle was adequate.

Last year, a divided three-judge panel of the court voted to reject the sentence imposed — for the second time — by U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, questioning his impartiality and saying that the sentence failed to protect the public from the al-Qaida-trained terrorist.

An order by Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, issued late Tuesday vacated that ruling and sent the case to be reheard by a larger panel of judges.

Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles by the U.S. Border Patrol on Dec. 14, 1999, in a rental car loaded with bomb-making materials. Coughenour presided over Ressam's trial in the spring of 2001. Ressam later credited the fairness of the proceedings when he decided to cooperate with federal authorities after he was convicted of attempting to plant a powerful suitcase bomb at the Los Angeles International Airport in 1999.

Ressam became a crucial source of information about al-Qaida in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and as a result federal prosecutors initially suggested a sentence of around 35 years for crimes that could have resulted in life in prison, including a count of conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism. Sentencing guidelines suggested a 65-year sentence.

Prosecutors appealed when Coughenour first imposed the 22-year sentence in 2005.

Ressam has been held in solitary confinement and over years of repeated questioning had soured on his cooperation. When the case was sent back to Coughenour for a procedural error in 2008, prosecutors urged the judge to impose the life sentence, saying Ressam had reneged on his deal. Ressam, in the meantime, fired his lawyers and recanted everything he had ever said....

Even so, Coughenour imposed the same sentence, saying that the information Ressam provided when he was cooperating almost certainly stopped other attacks and saved lives. The government appealed that sentence, which resulted in Tuesday's order.

Last year's 72-page ruling said Coughenour's decision failed to protect the public. Ressam, an Algerian who trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, already has completed nearly half of his sentence and will be 53 years old when he is released.... Federal public defender Thomas Hillier, who has represented or advised Ressam since his first court appearance in 1999, applauded the court for granting his request to reconsider the earlier decision, which not only exposed Ressam to many more years in prison but also stripped Coughenour, the trial judge, of the case. "We were concerned about its impact on the evolution of federal sentencing, as well as how it might impact Ahmed," he said. "We're grateful for another shot at it."

August 4, 2011 at 10:05 AM | Permalink

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