The panel sent the case of al-Qaida member Ahmed Ressam back down to the U.S. District Court level for re-sentencing, and ordered that it be assigned to a new judge.
A jury convicted Algerian-born Ressam on nine counts in his plot to detonate explosives at Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the Millennium -- Dec. 31, 1999. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he was eligible for 65 years to life in prison, and a maximum under federal law to 130 years in prison.
But Ressam entered into a cooperation agreement in 2001 with the U.S. government, providing information to law enforcement in the United States and other countries about al-Qaida, the appeals court said. He also testified against a co-conspirator.
However, Ressam apparently had a change of heart after two years. He stopped cooperating with prosecutors and began recanting his prior testimony.
Nevertheless, the trial court judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release.
An appeals court threw out one count against him, but also threw out his sentence, saying the judge didn't follow the guidelines. In a second sentencing, the judge again imposed the 22-year sentence, and the government appealed again.
The appeals court panel again threw out the 22-year sentence, and sent the case down "for re-sentencing by a different district court judge, saying the judge "committed ... error in failing to address specific, non-frivolous arguments raised by the government in imposing a sentence that is well below the advisory sentencing guidelines range."
The panel noted Ressam's temporary cooperation with prosecutors, but said, "It is unclear what reason there is to reward a defendant at all for cooperation at the same time that the defendant is disavowing having intended to cooperate and loudly proclaiming that his statements should not be believed."