'Millennial bomber' Ressam's term too short, appeals court says
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rebuked U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour for sentencing "millennial bomber" Ahmed Ressam to 22 years in prison and has ordered Ressam to reappear before Coughenour for resentencing.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rebuked longtime U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour for sentencing "millennial bomber" Ahmed Ressam to a relatively light sentence of 22 years in prison and has ordered Ressam to reappear before Coughenour for resentencing.
The opinion is the latest twist in Ressam's highly controversial case and drawn-out appeals. Since handing down the attempted-bombing sentence in 2005 and the same sentence again in 2008, Coughenour has been having to explain his reasoning for not following the guideline range of 65 years to life.
Ressam, an Algerian national who had been living in Montreal for several years, was arrested in Port Angeles in 1999 after crossing into the U.S. from Victoria, B.C., with electronic timers, powders and liquids in the trunk of his rental car. The material turned out to be the makings of a powerful bomb.
In February 2010, the majority of a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned Ressam's 2008 sentence. In the 72-page ruling, two of the three judges ordered Ressam's case transferred to another U.S. District Court judge because Coughenour's "previously expressed views appear too entrenched to allow for the appearance of fairness on remand."
Federal Public Defender Thomas Hillier II, who represents Ressam, asked that a larger panel of appeals judges review the 2010 three-judge decision. Arguments were made before the court in September.
In the decision released Monday, the case will be kept before Coughenour, but Ressam's sentence again will be vacated.
On Monday, Hillier said that the most recent ruling did not come as a surprise "in a case this high-profile or important." Hillier said he had not spoken to Ressam about it.
"This is a very difficult case where Judge Coughenour, who has been observing Mr. Ressam closely for many years, found that 22 years was enough. In a case like this there are going to be strong feelings," Hillier said.
Hillier said the appellate court has asked Coughenour to "resentence Mr. Ressam and the obvious expectation is that the sentence will be higher."
Coughenour has twice sentenced Ressam, now 44, to 22-year terms for the attempted bombing.
The first sentence, imposed in July 2005, was thrown out by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because Coughenour had failed to cite for the record the applicable sentencing guidelines and why he diverged from them.
The U.S. Attorney's Office appealed both sentences.
Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Monday that the office "will seek to hold Mr. Ressam fully accountable for his attempt to murder scores of innocent people by bombing the Los Angeles airport."
Though Coughenour declined to comment in 2010 and could not be reached Monday, in December 2008 he defended the sentence by pointing to the significance of Ressam's earlier cooperation with intelligence agencies from the United States, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and England.
Information provided by Ressam, the judge said, "proved to be invaluable and ... almost certainly prevented other attacks." But Ressam had stopped cooperating with authorities in 2003.
Ressam is incarcerated at the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., according to the 9th Circuit. The facility houses a number of convicted terrorists.
A federal investigation showed Ressam had been recruited by al-Qaida in Montreal and had trained in terrorism camps sponsored by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was planning to set off a massive suitcase bomb in the Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations.
After his conviction in April 2001, Ressam cooperated with federal authorities in hopes of receiving a shorter prison sentence. He became a key source of information on the operation of al-Qaida in Western Europe and North America after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, providing information that led to the prosecution of some of the terrorist organization's top leaders.
But later he stopped cooperating. A court-appointed psychiatrist found he was suffering from a mental breakdown after years in solitary confinement and repeated interrogations. When he was sentenced in December 2008, Ressam recanted everything he'd ever said as a government informant.
"I did not know what I was saying," said Ressam, who claimed the FBI and attorneys "put words in my mouth."
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, and information from Seattle Times archives is included. Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.