SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals court said Tuesday a 22-year prison sentence was too lenient for an Al Qaeda-trained terrorist convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Day 2000.
A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Ahmed Ressam deserved a much longer prison term because he had reneged on a deal to cooperate with terrorism investigators around the world.
U.S. prosecutors said Ressam's change-of-heart after two years of cooperation compromised at least two terrorist cases in the U.S., resulting in charges being dropped.
The appeals court also took the rare step of removing from the case the Seattle trial judge who imposed the initial sentence.
Federal guidelines suggest that Ressam should receive a prison sentence of 65 years to life after a jury convicted him of attempting to smuggle explosives meant for LAX across the Canada border in a rental car in December 1999.
Prosecutors argued for life in prison during a 2008 hearing held after Ressam recanted all his prior cooperation and insisted that lawyers and prosecutors had badgered him into making false allegations against other alleged terrorists.
"Sentence me to life in prison or anything you wish," Ressam told the judge. "I will have no objection to your sentence. Thank you."
Instead, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison, citing his two years of cooperation, and said Ressam's "life history and personal characteristics support favorable sentencing consideration."
But the appeals court said Coughenour's conclusions were "clearly erroneous," and Ressam has an extensive criminal history. Writing for the majority court, Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon said the trial judge failed to take into account public safety with the 22-year prison sentence.
"This factor is particularly relevant in a terrorist case such as this, where Ressam, who has demonstrated strongly held beliefs about the need to attack American interests in the United States and abroad, will be only 53 years old upon his release," Alarcon wrote.
Circuit Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez dissented, writing that he would have respected Coughenour's sentence.
Coughenour declined comment when The Associated Press told him of the decision.