SEATTLE - The Millennium Bomber got off too easy. That's today's ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court also removed the judge who sentenced Ahmed Ressam to 22 years in prison.
"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 of Seattle.
Now, they're seeking a much longer prison term, something Ressam's attorney says he doesn't deserve.
"I'm disappointed in the decision," said Federal Defense Attorney Tom Hillier.
Hillier believes justice was served when Ressam, was sentenced for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the turn of the millennium.
But the three-judge panel threw out the sentence. They say Ressam had stopped cooperating and recanted his prior testimony. And in a bold move, the court also removed Judge John Coughenour, implying procedural error.
"It just is really insulting to this judge for the court of appeals to have done that. This judge has been with this case for ten years. This judge knows the facts. No other judge knows the facts of this case," says Hillier
Prosecutors argued for life in prison during a 2008 hearing held after Ressam recanted his 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."
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the trial judge to impose a new sentence based on the federal guidelines.
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."
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. President Reagan appointed Coughenour to the bench in 1981 and he assumed semiretired status in 2006.
Investigators say Ressam attended three training camps for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan between March 1998 and February 1999. He learned to handle weapons, construct bombs and the black art of sabotage before he was assigned with five other terrorist to a cell to be based in Montreal.
Ressam traveled to Canada in February 1999 with $12,000 in cash, bomb-making instructions and a key chemical used in explosives. The other members of his cell didn't make it to Canada, but Ressam continued plans to bomb LAX.
Ressam hid 100 pounds of explosive materials in the wheel well in the trunk of a rental car, and on Dec. 14, 1999 drove it on to the American ferry M/V COHO at Victoria, B.C. He was also carrying a bogus Canadian passport.
A U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agent didn't discover the explosives during a search of the car and allowed Ressam to board the ferry and travel to Port Angeles, Wash.
When Ressam arrived at the U.S. port, suspicious U.S. Customs inspector Diane Dean ordered the rental car searched. This time the explosives, complete with four timing devices, were found and Ressam was arrested.
After his conviction, he cooperated with the feds for two years. But then he clammed up. The court of appeals says that's evidence he is still a terrorist.
"That's not the truth," said Hillier. " There's absolutely no reason to say he's a threat. I've talked to him for thousands of hours and I firmly believe to the extent humanly possible that he is not a threat and would not be a threat."
Ressam has served about half of his 22 year sentence. The Ninth Circuit wants to see him serve something closer to 65 years-to-life.
Hillier says he will appeal.