Thursday, June 12, 2008

Big Terrorism Case Leads to Split on Sentencing Review

US v. Abu Ali: Ali is a US citizen, born in Virginia, who eventually travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he became involved with an Al-Qaeda cell. After a bombing in Riyadh (in which Ali was not involved), Saudi authorities cracked down. Investigation of Ali and others led to indictment in the US against Ali for various terrorism and related charges, in addition to conspiracy to assassinate the President. He was convicted by a jury of all charges. In a lengthy opinion, the Fourth Circuit unanimously affirms the conviction, rejecting numerous challenges that are most likely to occur only in similar transnational terrorism cases.

The real action, from the more mundane perspective, involves sentencing. Ali's Guideline range called for a mandatory life sentence. At sentencing, the district court varied down to 360 months, based on both the particular facts of Ali's offense and background (he never actually perpetrated any violent acts, no violence in his past, etc.) as well as comparison with what the district court thought were two similar cases - those of John Walker Lindh and Tim McVeigh/Terry Nichols. Noting that Lindh only got 20 years and Nichols got life where his offense involved actual killing, the district court concluded that a variance to 360 months was necessary.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated the sentence, 2-1. The majority heavily dissected the district court's comparison between Ali's case and Lindh/Nichols and concluded that it gave too much weight to those comparisons, which were flawed to begin with. The majority did not state categorically that a 360-month sentence would always be unreasonable, but vacated and remanded for further proceedings. Judge Motz dissented on the sentencing issue, arguing that the majority's review ignored Gall and failed to provide the proper level of deference to the district court's sentence, concluding that it was a reasonable sentence, if not ,perhaps, the most reasonable.

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