Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A three-judge federal appeals court panel in California yesterday overturned one of nine criminal convictions against the Algerian national who was found guilty in a scheme to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve in 1999 and ordered that his 22-year prison sentence be recalculated.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in San Francisco reversed the conviction of one charge against Ahmed Ressam, the so-called “millennium bomber,” and sent the case back to a lower court to issue a new sentence and explain the rationale behind the original 22-year term.

Ressam was arrested by U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Border Patrol agents in December 1999 in Port Angeles, Wash., after entering the United States aboard a ferry from Canada. Agents found 124 pounds of explosives, including nitroglycerin, hidden in the trunk of his rented car.

At the time, prosecutors said he intended to place the explosives at the Los Angeles airport, where they would be detonated on Dec. 31. The arrest raised fears of terrorism attacks and prompted the cancellation of 2000 celebrations at Seattle’s Space Needle.

Sentencing for Ressam on his April 2001 conviction in the case on the nine counts, including conspiracy to commit an international terrorist act and explosives smuggling, was postponed until July 2005 after he emerged as an important U.S. government informant on the al Qaeda terrorist network.

But he later ended his cooperation, and two terrorism cases prosecutors sought to bring to court were later dismissed. At that point, prosecutors asked that a 35-year term be imposed.

The appeals court panel, in a 2-1 decision, reversed his conviction on a charge of carrying an explosive while committing a felony — lying on a U.S. customs form by signing another man’s name. The court said it ordered the conviction reversed because the jury was not informed about the charge’s link to the underlying crime.

“The government must demonstrate that the explosives aided the commission of the underlying felony in some way,” wrote Appeals Court Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, who was appointed to the bench in 1989 by the first President Bush. “There is no evidence that the explosives emboldened Ressam to lie or that he used them to ‘protect himself or intimidate others.’

“We vacate the entire sentence so that the district court can resentence in light of this decision,” she wrote.

The reversed count carried a mandatory sentence of 10 years, although some of the sentences in the conviction are being served concurrently to arrive at the 22-year total. How much time Ressam will spend in prison remains uncertain pending the lower court judge’s review.

“He could sentence him to 22 years if that’s what he feels is appropriate,” Ressam’s attorney, Thomas Hillier, told reporters. “There definitely is not an imperative here to lop 10 years off.”

Appeals Judge Arthur R. Alarcon, appointed to the bench in 1979 by President Carter, issued a dissent in the case, saying he would not overturn the conviction on the ninth count.

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