Federal prosecutors ask U.S. Supreme Court to consider Ressam case

Peninsula Daily News and The Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to intervene in what federal prosecutors say is a procedural gaffe that led to a too-lenient sentence for a terrorist who brought explosive devices into Port Angeles in 1999.

A federal appellate court's decision to toss one of the charges against Ahmed Ressam - an Algerian national who trained in one of the Afghanistan camps of Osama bin Laden before going to Canada - could "significantly diminish" the government's ability to prosecute terrorists, the Justice Department wrote Thursday in asking the Supreme Court to take the case.

Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2005 after being convicted on nine counts for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around Jan. 1, 2000 - more than 1 years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and outside of Washington, D.C.

Prosecutors had asked for at least 35 years in federal prison.

133 pounds of materials
Customs inspectors in Port Angeles caught Ressam with 133 pounds of bomb-making materials in the trunk of his rental car shortly after he drove off the MV Coho ferry from Victoria on Dec. 14, 1999.

That was when three of the inspectors - including now-Clallam County Commissioner Mike Chapman - chased the Algerian from the Customs station at the ferry landing through a downtown decorated for the approaching Christmas holidays.

Ressam was finally captured and arrested near the corner of First and Lincoln streets and taken back to the Railroad Avenue inspection station.

He soon was driven to Seattle and his explosives were detonated at an undisclosed Clallam County location.

Because Ressam was believed to be heading to Seattle to a motel near Seattle Center, the arrest prompted a scare that forced the cancellation of New Year's 2000 celebrations at Seattle's Space Needle.

It wasn't until the next year that investigators revealed that Ressam was part of a plot to blow up the international terminal at the giant Los Angeles airport.

Appellate panel
Early this year, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Ressam's conviction on one of the charges - carrying explosives during the commission of a felony, which carries a mandatory 10-year sentence.

In a 2-1 decision, the court reasoned that the law required prosecutors to show the explosives were carried "in relation to" the felony, which in this case was lying on a Customs form.

The panel sent the case back to a lower court to issue a new sentence, and also asked the judge to explain the rationale behind the 22-year term, which prosecutors had challenged as too lenient.

The Justice Department disagreed with the dismissal of the charge and asked the 9th Circuit to hear the case again with 15 judges.

The court declined, prompting Thursday's petition to the Supreme Court.

"The Court of Appeals has misconstrued [the law] in a way that conflicts with the decisions of other courts of appeals and could significantly diminish the statute's usefulness as a tool for combating terrorism-related offenses," the petition said.

"Nothing in the text . . . indicates that the explosives must have been carried 'in relation to' the underlying felony."

Before a terrorist act
If allowed to stand, the Justice Department argued, the lower court's ruling is likely to be particularly significant in terrorism cases where a defendant is caught before a plan is put into action.

In such cases, including Ressam's, it could be difficult or impossible to prove the connection between carrying the explosives and other felonies committed by the defendant.

Ressam's attorneys insist that the government's interpretation would lead to a nonsensical result: The law would punish the coincidental possession of explosives during a felony as harshly as the actual use of explosives during another felony.

"Congressional intent to impose such a harsh sentence would not be served by making it available simply because explosives are being carried at the time a wholly unrelated, nonviolent felony is committed," they wrote in their trial brief.

Ressam was convicted in 2001, then decided to tell investigators what he knew about al-Qaida in an effort to win a shorter sentence.

His testimony helped convict one of his coconspirators, but his cooperation came to a halt by early 2003, forcing the government to dismiss cases against two of his alleged coconspirators, Samir Ait Mohamed and Abu Doha.

________
Associated Press legal affairs writer Gene Johnson, in Seattle, contributed to this report.

Last modified: October 04. 2007 9:00PM
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