SEATTLE – The sentencing of an Algerian who plotted to blow up part of the Los Angeles (search) airport on the eve of the millennium was postponed Wednesday by a federal judge to give the defendant more time to help the government in its terrorism investigations.
After hearing 2 1/2 hours of arguments and testimony about Ahmed Ressam's (search) level of cooperation with federal investigators, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour decided to delay the hearing until July 28.
"It's inherent in the action of my request that there's reason for optimism that his cooperation will improve," Coughenour said. "The world will be in a better place if we set this over."
Ressam was caught in December 1999 trying to enter the United States with a trunkload of explosives. He began detailing terrorist operations for investigators after he was convicted in April 2001.
Prosecutors had sought 35 years behind bars for Ressam, 37, saying that he has stopped talking with the government and thus jeopardized two related terrorism prosecutions. Ressam's attorneys, who recommended 12 1/2 years, had said he is willing to continue cooperating; he just doesn't remember as much about his alleged co-conspirators as he used to.
When the government had finished presenting its case for the 35-year sentence, defense attorney Thomas Hillier began to address the court. Soon the judge interrupted him and asked why, when Ressam's cooperation in two pending terrorism cases could take years off his sentence, the two sides were proceeding with sentencing him now.
"I'm mystified that we wanted to go on with the sentencing today," the judge said in asking Hillier if the sentencing should be postponed.
Hillier returned to the defense table and consulted with Ressam, his interpreter and other members of the defense team. During nearly 10 minutes of animated discussion, Ressam shook his head and threw up his hands, and Hillier paced the courtroom running his hands through his mop of silver hair.
Finally, an exasperated Hillier told the judge that he would like to move for a three-month delay. The government objected. Prosecutor Mark Bartlett argued that unless Ressam was prepared to promise he would fully cooperate, the sentencing should not be delayed.
But Coughenour gave the defense team three months to persuade Ressam to continue cooperating in two related terrorism cases.
"It strikes me that a lot of the details he's not remembering now are details that one would not forget," Coughenour said.
Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles as he drove off a ferry from British Columbia. He ran when Customs agents searched his car but was caught about six blocks away. In his trunk were explosives more powerful than TNT and digital watches that could be used as timers, authorities said.
Because Ressam had a one-night reservation for a motel just blocks from the Space Needle in Seattle, the mayor called off most of the city's celebrations to welcome the year 2000.
Ressam was convicted in April 2001 of nine charges, including smuggling and terrorist conspiracy.
Facing up to 130 years in prison, he began to talk, and prosecutors and defense lawyers agree he provided extensive information about terror camps in Afghanistan. But in 2003, defense lawyers called off further talks, saying he his mental state had deteriorated because of long periods of solitary confinement.
Prosecutors now say that without his continued help, they may have to drop terrorism charges against two other suspects in the bomb plot. Abu Doha and Samir Ait Mohamed are awaiting extradition to the United States — Doha in Britain, Mohamed in Canada.
Ressam's testimony helped convict Mokhtar Haouari of supplying fake identification and cash for the millennium bomb plot. Haouari was sentenced in New York to 24 years in prison.
In December 2002, Ressam met with German justice officials who questioned him about Al Qaeda for the trial of a Moroccan charged with supporting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers. Mounir el Motassadeq was convicted in February 2003 and sentenced to 15 years in prison.