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02/02/2010

Millennium bomber sentence overturned

Court finds that the trial court committed procedural errors requiring new sentencing

SAN FRANCISCO - A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the 22-year prison sentence of Ahmed Ressam, often referred to as the Millennium Bomber, was marred by procedural error and, on its own, sent the case of the 41-year old Algerian back to a different judge in the Western District of Washington for a new sentencing hearing.

"Our primary mission is to protect the public. 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. "We have the greatest respect for Judge John Coughenour and his hard work on a difficult case. However, we maintain that to protect the public, and deter others, a longer prison sentence is necessary."

In the appeal, prosecutors did not ask that the case be moved to a different judge. However, the appeals court ordered the case be sent back for sentencing to another judge. That judge will be assigned to the case when the official paperwork arrives from the Ninth Circuit. That could be as soon as three weeks from today, barring additional appeals.

The Appeals Court identified the following four procedural errors at the sentencing hearing:

  • the court did not use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as a starting point;
  • the court did not explain why it rejected government arguments regarding the value of Ressam's cooperation and the impact of his recantation;
  • the court erred by adopting the defense views of Ressam's life history and characteristics that was contradicted by facts in the presentence report; and
  • the court failed to address the government argument that a longer sentence was needed to protect the public from Ressam who would be only 53-years-old when released from prison.

Ressam was sentenced on December 3, 2008, in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 22 years in prison for his failed plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. At that hearing, prosecutors sought a sentence of life in prison for Ressam, after he told the court that the information he had provided to the government to shorten his sentence was the product of an unstable mind.

Ressam was arrested December 14, 1999, after he tried to enter the United States at Port Angeles, Wash., with powerful explosives in the trunk of his rental car. Ressam had taken a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia. While clearing vehicles leaving the ferry, a Customs and Border Protection inspector grew suspicious about Ressam's nervous demeanor and conducted a secondary inspection of him and his vehicle.

After an 18-day trial in the spring of 2001 in front of U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, Ressam was convicted of nine counts including an act of terrorism transcending a national boundary; placing an explosive in proximity to a terminal; false identification documents; use of a fictitious name for admission; false statement; smuggling; transportation of explosives; possession of an unregistered explosive device; and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony.

Facing a possible sentence of 65 years to life in prison in early 2001, Ressam agreed to provide information to the United States and testify against others. However, Ressam stopped providing information in 2003 and claimed in court in December 2008 that he was "mentally incompetent" when he provided the information. The prosecutions of two terror suspects were terminated after Ressam recanted his testimony.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation jointly investigated this case.