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Millennium Bomber's sentence again thrown out as federal courts bicker

The Canadian Press via AP, file

Ahmed Ressam in an undated police photo. Ressam's 22-year sentence for plotting to bomb the Los Angeles airport has been rjected twice by a higher court.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET: For the second time, a federal appeals court has overturned a prison sentence for Ahmed Ressam, the "Millennium Bomber," ruling Monday that the 22-year sentence he received isn't long enough.

The final sentence for Ressam, 44 — who was convicted in 2000 of trying to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999 in a plot that also was to involve an attack on the Space Needle in Seattle — has been the focus of a standoff between U.S. District Court in Seattle and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

M. Alex Johnson

M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Ressam's original sentencing was delayed until 2005 while he provided information on terrorist activities to federal authorities. In 2005, District Judge John Coughenour, accusing the federal government of overreaching in its "war on terrorism," sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison — about a third of the sentence called for in federal guidelines.

In February 2010, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that Coughenour's sentence was too lenient, sending it back to district court with orders that a different judge apply the federal guidelines, which would result in a sentence of 65 years.

But the district court reaffirmed Coughenour's original sentence of 22 years. The tit-for-tat ruling Monday was by the full appeals court, which voted 7-4 to send the case back yet again.

The appeals court acknowledged that its order was unusual, saying Coughenour had wide discretion in passing sentence because of Ressam's cooperation with the U.S. government. But that "does not mean anything goes," appeals Judge Richard R. Clifton wrote Monday in declaring the sentence "substantively unreasonable."

Read the full appeals court ruling (.pdf)

In a dissent, appeals Judge Mary M. Schroeder noted that the federal government has never argued that Coughenour committed any procedural error. In fact, she wrote, it initially asked for a sentence of only 35 years because of Ressam's cooperation and conceded in court that it would accept a sentence of as little as 30 years.

"The 22-year sentence imposed was thus well within the range of alternatives proposed to the district court," Schoeder contended.

Ressam remains in custody in Seattle pending his eventual final sentence.

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