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Court voids sentence in LAX plot

A U.S. appellate panel says the penalty should be recalculated because one count was vacated.

Long Delay Expected

January 17, 2007|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Tuesday overturned the 22-year sentence imposed on a man convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport at the start of the millennium.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of Ahmed Ressam, known as the "millennium bomber," back to U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The appeals court said the case needed to be recalculated because it had vacated one of the numerous counts on which Ressam had been convicted -- the charge of carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony, which carried a 10-year minimum sentence under federal guidelines.

U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, writing for the majority, referred to the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit are considering cases that are expected to have a significant impact on federal sentencing law.

Consequently, District Judge John C. Coughenour will have to wait for those decisions, said Thomas W. Hillier II, the federal public defender in Seattle, who is representing Ressam.

Ohio State University law professor Douglas A. Berman said it made sense for the three-judge panel to send the case back to Coughenour and tell him to wait to resentence Ressam until the Supreme Court brings some clarity to federal sentencing law.

University of Richmond law professor Carl W. Tobias agreed, but said sentencing law "is in such a state of flux" that Ressam's resentencing could come "far in the future."

Ressam left his native Algeria for France in 1992 and two years later fled to Canada after being arrested on an immigration violation. While in Montreal in 1998, Ressam met an Al Qaeda operative who recruited him for a training camp in Afghanistan. According to Tuesday's ruling, Ressam spent six months at a training camp, learning how to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and make explosive charges, and "how to destroy infrastructure targets, such as power plants, military installations, railroads and airports," Rymer wrote.

Later, Ressam went to a second camp near Jalalabad, where he and others "hatched the plot to target a U.S. airport to coincide with the millennium," the judge added.

In December 1999, Ressam left British Columbia in a rented Chrysler loaded with explosives, electronic timing devices, detonators, fertilizer and aluminum sulfate. After he crossed by ferry to Port Angeles, Wash., an alert customs inspector, Diana Dean, noticed that he was agitated and asked other agents to search his car.

They found component parts of a bomb hidden in the trunk's tire well. Ressam was arrested and indicted. The case was transferred to Los Angeles because of heavy pretrial publicity in the Northwest.

Ressam was convicted in 2001 on charges including an act of terrorism transcending a national boundary, placing explosives in proximity to the ferry terminal, possessing false identification, using a fictitious name, falsely identifying himself on a customs declaration form, smuggling and transporting explosives, and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony, namely signing the customs form using an alias -- Benni Norris.

The government offered no evidence that carrying the explosives facilitated Ressam's falsifying the customs declaration form, and the jury was not instructed that the crime of carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony was related to the other crime, Rymer said.

"The government must demonstrate that the explosives aided the commission of the underlying felony in some way. There is no evidence that the explosives emboldened Ressam to lie or that he used them to 'protect himself or intimidate others,' " Rymer added. Judge Marsha S. Berzon joined in the majority opinion.

Ressam initially was exposed to a 65-year sentence. After trial, however, he agreed to cooperate with the government. Although he provided testimony and participated in debriefings with the government, the appeals court noted, Ressam stopped cooperating in 2003.

As a result, the government asked for a 35-year-sentence; Ressam's lawyers asked for 10 years, and the judge decided on 22 years.

Hillier, who represented Ressam, said he was pleased with Tuesday's decision, though he acknowledged that his client ultimately could wind up with the same sentence.

Because Ressam remains convicted of eight felonies, there is no prospect that he will get out of prison anytime soon.

Emily Langley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Seattle, who had appealed in hopes of getting a longer sentence, said lawyers were studying the ruling and had not yet decided whether they would ask Justice Department officials in Washington for permission to request that the case be reheard by a larger panel of 9th Circuit judges.

Judge Arthur L. Alarcon dissented from the decision to vacate one of Ressam's convictions. But he concurred in the decision to vacate the sentence. "I agree with the government that the sentence imposed" by the trial judge "was unreasonable and an extreme departure from the advisory sentencing guidelines," Alarcon wrote.

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