RICHMOND, Va. – The life prison term given to a U.S. man who joined al-Quaida and plotted to assassinate then-President George W. Bush was unreasonably harsh when compared to sentences in comparable terrorism cases, the man's lawyer told a federal appeals court Thursday.
A government attorney countered that U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee properly concluded that Ahmed Abu Ali's case was unique and that his lack of remorse demonstrated that he would be a danger to others if ever released from prison.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from both sides before taking Abu Ali's request for a new sentencing hearing under advisement. The court usually takes a few weeks to rule.
Abu Ali was born in Houston and grew up in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, where he was valedictorian of a private Islamic high school. He joined al-Qaida while attending college in Saudi Arabia and discussed numerous potential terrorist attacks, including a plot to assassinate Bush, and planned to establish a sleeper cell in the United States.
Abu Ali initially was sentenced to 30 years, but the Richmond-based appeals court rejected that as too lenient and sent the case back to Lee for resentencing. Lee imposed the maximum life term.
Alice L. Fontier, an attorney for Abu Ali, argued that Lee misinterpreted the appeals court's guidance on sentencing and went too far in giving her client a substantially harsher sentence than other terrorists.
"There are a multitude of cases that are comparable," she said.
For example, she cited the case of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who made a plea deal and was sentenced to 20 years for joining al-Qaida so he could fight in Afghanistan.
However, appeals court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III noted that the assassination plot and plans to hijack planes set Abu Ali's case apart.
"I'm not sure how they qualify as comparable," Wilkinson said.
Justice Department attorney Stephen M. Campbell said that of the many terrorists Abu Ali's attorneys cited as comparable, only Jose Padilla was even eligible for a life term. He said Abu Ali's offenses were more serious because he plotted attacks in the U.S. while Padilla, who was sentenced to 17 years, conspired with terrorists overseas.
When Lee imposed the life sentence, he said he was concerned that Abu Ali could be a threat to the public if released from a federal prison in Florence, Colo., where he has been held in solitary confinement. Lee said there was no way to know what Abu Ali's mental state would be after 30 years in solitary.
Fontier said the judge essentially was holding Abu Ali accountable for the effects of a violation of the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Campbell said the likelihood that Abu Ali would remain dangerous after a release was "a grave concern" that the judge had a right to consider at sentencing.