News and Press Releases

Court finds that the Trial Court Committed Procedural Errors Requiring New Sentencing

February 2, 2010

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the 22-year prison sentence of Millennium Bomber AHMED RESSAM was marred by procedural error and, on its own, sent the case of the 41-year-old Algerian back to a new judge in the Western District of Washington for a new sentencing hearing.

“Our primary mission is to protect the public. 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. “We have the greatest respect for Judge John Coughenour and his hard work on a difficult case. However, we maintain that to protect the public, and deter others, a longer prison sentence is necessary.”

In their appeal, prosecutors did not ask that the case be moved to a different judge. The three-judge panel, however, ordered the case be sent back for sentencing to a new judge. That judge will be assigned to the case when the official paperwork arrives from the Ninth Circuit. That could be as soon as three weeks from today, barring additional appeals.

The appeals court identified four procedural errors at the sentencing hearing: The Court did not use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as a starting point; the Court did not explain why it rejected government arguments regarding the value of RESSAM’s cooperation and the impact of his recantation; the Court erred by adopting the defense views of Ressam’s life history and characteristics that was contradicted by facts in the presentence report; and the Court failed to address the government argument that a longer sentence was needed to protect the public from RESSAM who would be only 53-years-old when released from prison.

RESSAM was sentenced December 3, 2008, in United States District Court in Seattle to 22 years in prison for his failed plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. At that hearing, prosecutors sought a sentence of life in prison for RESSAM, after he told the court that the information he had provided to the government to shorten his sentence were the product of an unstable mind.

RESSAM was arrested December 14, 1999, as he tried to enter the United States at Port Angeles, Washington with powerful explosives in the trunk of his rental car. RESSAM had taken the ferry from Victoria, B.C., and a secondary inspection was conducted when a Customs and Border Protection officer, clearing cars leaving the ferry, grew suspicious about RESSAM’s nervous demeanor.

After an 18-day trial in the spring of 2001, in front of Judge Coughenour, RESSAM was convicted of nine counts: An Act of Terrorism Transcending a National Boundary; Placing an Explosive in Proximity to a Terminal; False Identification Documents; Use of a Fictitious Name for Admission; False Statement; Smuggling; Transportation of Explosives; Possession of an Unregistered Explosive Device; and Carrying an Explosive During the Commission of a Felony.

Facing a possible sentence of 65 years to life in prison, in early 2001, RESSAM agreed to provide information to the United States and testify against others. However, RESSAM ceased providing information in 2003 and claimed in court in December 2008, that he was “mentally incompetent” when he provided the information. The prosecutions of two terror suspects were terminated after RESSAM recanted his testimony.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI investigated the case.

The case against RESSAM was prosecuted by the late Assistant United States Attorney F. Jerome Diskin, Assistant United States Attorney Andrew R. Hamilton, and Assistant United States Attorney Steven Gonzalez. Both Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Hamilton have now left the United States Attorney’s Office. The litigation surrounding RESSAM’s sentence in the Ninth Circuit is being handled by Appellate Chief Helen Brunner.

For additional information please contact Emily Langlie, Public Affairs Officer for the United States Attorney’s Office, at (206) 553-4110.

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