By ED WHITE -- The Associated Press
A Nigerian man returned to court Thursday to be sentenced to life in prison for trying to destroy a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas 2009 while on a suicide mission for al-Qaida.
As the hearing started, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds refused to set aside a federal law that calls for a mandatory life sentence for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. His attorney said it would be cruel and unconstitutional punishment when there was no death or serious injury to passengers.
But Edmunds said such a declaration would run counter to decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Abdulmutallab, wearing a white skull cap and an oversized prison T-shirt, was back in court four months after pleading guilty on the second day of his terrorism trial. The hearing was an open platform for passengers and crew who want to speak, but only five of nearly 300 addressed the court.
Abdulmutallab, 25, tried to detonate explosive chemicals that were hidden in his underwear minutes before the plane landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The government says he first performed a ritual in the lavatory - brushing his teeth and perfuming himself - and returned to his seat. The device didn't work as planned, but still produced flame, smoke and panic in the cabin.
"I've become bolder. I've become stronger," said passenger Shama Chopra, 56, of Montreal, who plans to speak in court. She ran unsuccessfully for the Canadian Parliament in 2011, a race she couldn't have imagined joining years ago.
"I don't have to feel weak," Chopra said in an interview Wednesday. "I don't have to be scared of anything. God has given me a second chance to live."
On the second day of the trial in October, Abdulmutallab suddenly pleaded guilty to all charges. In a defiant speech, he said he was carrying a "blessed weapon" to avenge Muslims who have been killed or poorly treated around the world. He admitted he was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-born cleric and leading al-Qaida figure in Yemen who was killed by a U.S. drone strike last fall.
"The Quran obliges every able Muslim to participate in jihad and fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, and kill them wherever you find them ... an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," Abdulmutallab said.
Anthony Chambers, an attorney appointed to assist Abdulmutallab, believes the Nigerian will speak again Thursday but doesn't know what he'll say. He said nine members of Abdulmutallab's family, including his father, traveled to Detroit but don't plan to be in court.
In a court filing ahead of the hearing, Chambers urged Edmunds to declare that a mandatory life sentence is unconstitutional.
"Not one passenger lost his or her life. Not one passenger suffered life-threatening injuries," Chambers said.
The government said that is not the threshold.
"Unsuccessful terrorist attacks still engender fear in the broader public, which, after all, is one of their main objectives," prosecutors said in a court filing Wednesday.
The case also had lasting implications for security screening at American airports.
Abdulmutallab's ability to defeat security in Amsterdam contributed to the deployment of full-body scanners at U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration was using the scanners in some American cities at the time, but the attack accelerated their placement.
There are now hundreds of the devices nationwide.