(CN) - The 22-year sentence of "millennium bomber" Ahmed Ressam is too light, considering what could have happened if his plan to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in 1999 had succeeded, the full 9th Circuit ruled Monday.
An 11-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco found the convicted terrorist's sentence "substantively unreasonable" and returned the long-running case to the trial court in Washington for a new sentence.
"Had Ressam succeeded in his plot to blow up LAX, it would have resulted in many deaths and injuries, substantial property damage, and enormous disruption to the nation's transportation system," Judge Richard Clifton wrote for the en banc panel. "The District Court acknowledged that 'Mr. Ressam's crimes, if carried to their intended conclusion, would have resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of innocent people and instilled fear across the country and even the world.' Many common criminals have been sentenced to much longer terms for offenses with much less serious consequences."
A Los Angeles jury convicted Ressam on nine counts related to the plot in 2001, including conspiring to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries. But it took four more years for U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle to hand down the 22-year sentence.
Ressam had spent the intervening years cooperating with the federal government in several terrorism investigations and trials. In 2003 he stopped cooperating, and he later recanted some of his statements, forcing the government to dismiss criminal charges against at least one high-ranking al-Qaida member.
After the plotter appealed his conviction for carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony, the 9th Circuit reversed the conviction and vacated Ressam's sentence.
Disagreeing with that move, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the conviction in 2008.
Next the government appealed the 22-years sentence, arguing that the term was a great departure from the guidelines. Ressam petitioned for an en banc hearing after a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed and vacated the sentence.
The full panel agreed with the government and upheld the previous panel's reversal on Monday, remanding the action back to Seattle.
"Ressam's sentence of 22 years ... represented a major departure," the panel found. "We acknowledge that 22 years is not a trivial period of time, but that sentence still amounted to a reduction of 43 years, or two-thirds, from the low end of the guidelines range. Moreover, 10 of Ressam's 22 years represent a mandatory, consecutive sentence ... For his other crimes of conviction, the total applicable guidelines range was 55 years to life, but he received only 12 more years-a downward departure of more than three-fourths as to the counts on which the sentencing judge had discretion."
The Western District of Washington had also failed to adjust Ressam's sentence in light of the fact that he was convicted of a terrorist act, the panel found.
"That Ressam's crimes were in furtherance of a terrorist attack compounded the severity of the crimes," Judge Clifton wrote. "Had Ressam succeeded, 'LAX' may well have entered our vocabulary as a term analogous to 'the Oklahoma City bombing' or '9/11.' His clear intent was to intimidate this nation and the world, and he sought to influence world events and the conduct of the United States government through that intimidation. The sentencing guidelines specifically provide for a substantial upward adjustment for federal crimes of terrorism. The sentence imposed by the district court effectively negated that adjustment."
Three dissenting judges argued that the majority had failed to give the trial court the "appropriate level of deference."
"The majority holds substantively unreasonable a 22-year sentence that is 13 years less than the government's request in its sentencing memorandum, and only 8 years less than what the government conceded at oral argument it would have accepted without appealing to this court," Judge Mary Schroeder wrote. "In light of the district court's sentencing discretion, I would exercise a more appropriate level of deference and affirm. The district court had lived with the case for nine years and its explanation reflects its familiarity with the history of the case and with the defendant."
Judges Richard Paez and Mary Murguia joined that opinion.
Ressam's federal public defender, Thomas Hillier II of Seattle, was "not accepting calls" on Monday morning.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle said it looks forward to holding "Mr. Ressam fully accountable for his attempt to murder scores of innocent people by bombing the Los Angeles airport."