CHICAGO (CN) - One of the men behind a terrorist attack on Mumbai that left 164 dead will serve 35 years in prison, a federal judge ruled Thursday, repeatedly emphasizing his hope that the plotter dies in prison.
Given the magnitude of the crimes and the "heartrending victim statements," the "easy sentence" for David Coleman Headley would be the death penalty, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber said.
He nevertheless accepted the government's recommendation for leniency based on the testimony Headley gave that implicated others in the plots orchestrated by the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
"Headley is a terrorist," Leinenweber said. "I don't have any faith in his saying that he is a changed person or wants his kids raised in the American way of life."
He emphasized Headley's statement that all Indians were responsible for the attacks on Pakistanis in the Kashmir, and his characterization of the Mumbai attacks as "getting even."
Lashkar, a terrorist organization of which Headley was an admitted member, is known for its long involvement in the Indo-Pakistani conflict over the Kashmir region, as well as for carrying out a series of attacks that rocked Mumbai in November 2008, leaving 164 people dead.
The group had also planned to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper of Denmark in retaliation for its publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. This plot would have involved murders and beheadings inside the newspaper's office.
Last week, Leinenweber set a 14-year sentence for Headley's co-conspirator in the Denmark plot, Tahawwur Rana.
Echoing his sentencing justification from Rana's hearing, Leinenweber noted that the Copenhagen attack "did not involve a terrorist attack on a government," and that there is little reason to consider the deterrent effect of American criminal sentences on international terrorists.
"Frankly, 35 years is not a light sentence. I am hopeful the sentence will keep him under lock and key for the rest of his life," Leinenweber said, before abruptly exiting the courtroom.
Headley had admitted to playing crucial intelligence-gathering and logistical roles in various international plots, but he took the spotlight in June 2012 as he offered days of mesmerizing testimony against his childhood friend Rana and high-ranking members of Lashkar and al-Qaida.
These included Ilyas Kashmiri, once considered a possible successor to Osama bin Laden.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Collins noted this "extraordinary" help in seeking a downward sentencing departure at the start of the Thursday sentencing hearing. "Words like 'despicable, horrific, shocking' are insufficient" to describe these crimes, Collins said, but he asked the court to balance this against "the value Headley provided to our government and its anti-terrorism efforts."
"This information will protect people all over the world," as well as "men and women serving overseas," he added.
Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald echoed these statement when he took the stand as a "fact witness" to Headley's participation, not in his former official capacity.
"One thing that stands out is the night Headley was arrested," Fitzgerald said. "Within 30 minutes of being Mirandized, he admitted his role without being confronted with any of our evidence. He was told point-blank that he was facing capital punishment," but Headley kept talking.
After these requests for leniency, Kia Scherr, whose husband and daughter were killed at the Oberoi Hotel, urged Leinenweber to order a life sentence.
Anything less would be a "moral outrage," she said.
Scherr emphasized that she would not wish death upon Headley and requested that the court use his birth name, Daood Gilani, instead of the Americanized alias he adopted for a life of crime.
Her description of the Mumbai attacks rocked the courtroom.
"I distinctly remember the first two flashes of light," Scherr said. "I saw the first bullets. There were so many bullets flying that waves of heat clouded my vision. I would have covered 13-year-old Naomi, [but] I didn't know that the attackers would go table to table executing survivors."
"I felt 'it' coming towards us, but then I saw that 'it' was only a boy," she continued. "His physique was the same as my own son's. His fear was palpable. Who were his teachers?"
She then described being shot by the attackers, with one bullet leaving a 3 foot scar from her chest to her stomach, and praised the heroic actions of hotel staff.
"You watched this all on TV," she said to Headley. "A man with your intelligence could have altered the lives of people in your country in so many positive ways. I hope you can find the peace and faith to take ownership of your actions."
Defense attorney John Theis joined the government in emphasizing the "extraordinary" nature of the help Headley provided and the lives it has saved. Contrasting Headley's help and contrition with Rana's refusal to cooperate, Theis said that his client "pushed back for years, if not forever" many similar plots. "He spoke with representatives of foreign governments, including India, to make them safer."
Headley, 52, may not have testified had he known he would die in prison, Theis said. Without a meaningful sentencing reduction, "the next person who comes along with information like Headley's won't take the risks to their person and family," Theis warned.
If such a person would "die in prison" anyway, there would be no incentive to help the government, he added.
Headley, clad in a gray sweat suit and black gym shoes, declined to comment.
The government gave an extensive recap of the case in a statement lauding the sentence.
"Today's sentence is an important milestone in our continuing efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attacks and to achieve justice for the victims," said Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general for national security. "Our investigations into Mumbai attacks and the Denmark terror plot are ongoing and active."
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