SEATTLE – The man convicted of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport on the eve of the millennium was sentenced Wednesday to 22 years in prison.
But Ressam, 38, could have received a shorter sentence had he not stopped talking to investigators in early 2003. Prosecutors argued that his recalcitrance has jeopardized cases against two of his co-conspirators.
In sentencing Ressam, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour (search) said he hoped to balance U.S. resolve to punish potential terrorist acts with Ressam's cooperation. Coughenour also said he hoped to send a message that the U.S. court system works in terrorism cases.
"We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, detain the defendant indefinitely or deny the defendant the right to counsel. ... Our courts have not abandoned the commitment to the ideals that set this nation apart," he said.
Ressam, an Algerian, was arrested in Port Angeles in December 1999 as he drove off a ferry from British Columbia with a trunk full of bomb-making materials.
Prosecutors recommended a 35-year sentence; Ressam's lawyers asked for 12 1/2 years.
Ressam had been scheduled for sentencing in April. After more than two hours of arguments, Coughenour called it off, giving Ressam three more months to resume cooperation.
Coughenour and federal prosecutors want Ressam to testify against his two co-conspirators, Samir Ait Mohamed (search) and Abu Doha (search), who are awaiting extradition from Canada and Britain, respectively.
Information provided by Ressam in the past was given to anti-terrorism field agents around the world — in one case, helping to prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid (search) attempted to blow up aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001, Hillier said.
During arguments Wednesday, public defender Thomas Hillier said the government's sentence recommendation was based on "self-serving, self-generated mathematics" that did not account for Ressam's cooperation.
"It is a flat fact that law enforcement, the public and public safety have benefited in countless ways," from Ressam's cooperation, Hillier said.
Coughenour unexpectedly called Andy Hamilton, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Ressam at trial, from the courtroom gallery to give a sentencing recommendation.
After noting that Ressam's sentence would be "perhaps the most important sentence this court has ever had," Hamilton told the judge that Ressam's reluctance to cooperate should weigh heavily.
"You can't be a cooperator and a terrorist," Hamilton said. "When he stopped cooperating, he went back to being what he was."