Terrorist Only Gets 35 Years in Prison for Role in Attacks that Killed Over 160 People

On Nov. 29, 2008, an Indian soldier takes cover as the Taj Mahal hotel burns during a gun battle between Indian military and militants inside the Mumbai hotel.

Image of the Taj Mahal Hotel – one of the targets of the 2008 Mumbai Attacks

On January 24, 2013, in a Chicago court, David Coleman Headley, an American, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his part in a series of deadly attacks in Mumbai, India. Headley was one of the leading planners of the 2008 attacks that took place over three days at two hotels, a train station and a small Jewish community center. Over 160 people, including many children, were murdered.

Headley was born in the United States to a Pakistani father and American mother. He became involved with an Islamic militant group called the Lashkar-e-Taiba around 2000. Prosecutors said that Headley was motivated to plan these attacks because of his hatred of India. In regards to Headley’s involvement, he never actually pulled a trigger in the attacks but he videotaped and mapped the targets for the gunman.

At the trial, victims and families of those that died from the attacks, pleaded for a harsh punishment. They gave detailed accounts of the horrifying experiences Headley forced them to live through. One victim spoke of the feeling of having a bullet rip through her body and another spoke of living with the sadness of watching her loved ones die.

Prosecutors pressed for leniency for Headley, requesting that he get no more than 35 years in prison because of his cooperation after his arrest in 2009. They said that Headley provided information on terrorist networks and he testified against Tahawwur Rana, a Chicago businessman convicted of providing aid to Lashkar-e-Taiba and backing a failed plot to attack a Danish newspaper.

Prosecutors also argued that by rewarding Headley with the possibility of a few years of freedom after his sentence, it could encourage future suspects in terrorist cases to cooperate.

Many are outraged, including myself, that Headley did not receive the death penalty or, at least, life in prison. What do you think his sentence should be? Do you agree with the prosecution in their reasoning for a lesser sentence?

SOURCES: FBI Website, Huffington Post: Chicago, NPR



  1. As awful and inhumane as his actions were, I understand why Headley’s sentence came down the way it did. Headley did not cause a terrorist attack within the United States, nor did he attack any Americans. Also, as you said, he made a deal with the prosecutor, which is most likely the biggest reason why he is not serving at least a life sentence. I guess the public policy would be that if you give these international terrorists life or death sentences, they are much less likely to provide information to the government or testify against other criminals, and that the United States is allegedly looking at a bigger picture. To play the devil’s advocate, is punishing one person to the fullest extent of the law more important than information that could improve national security?
    My personal belief is that human life is no more or less valuable because of one’s nationality, and that a court should see no difference between a man causing the deaths of 160 people in Mumbai or Miami. With that in mind, a judge should be free to ignore the prosecutor’s requests for leniency in favor of a fair sentence.

  2. I am stunned and outraged that Headley got such a lenient sentence. While some might argue that 35 years is not lenient, it is when that is the small punishment for being a mastermind in terrorists attacks that killed, injured, and perpetually destroyed the lives of so many. While I understand that prosecutors hope that in the future terrorists will cooperate and give details that can potentially prevent further attacks, what is the message that is being sent to these terrorists? Commit your heinous acts, killing innocent children, women, and men, but if you give us information you will get a good deal? For a country that refuses to cooperate with terrorists, and has mandatory minimums in some instances of twenty years for conspiracy cases, it is unsettling that such a light sentence was given to someone who deserved a much harsher sentence.

  3. Although Headley’s actions were atrocious and entirely uncalled for, it is easy to understand the Prosecutor’s position. Unfortunately, we make deals with criminals, including murderers, all the time. So why should Headley be any different? This deal allowed the prosecutor to find and prosecute other perpetrators that they would most likely not have found without Headley’s help. Otherwise, some criminals would have went free. Isn’t it better to get them all? Thirty-five years is a long time, and maybe during Headley’s sentence he will have time to realize and be sorry for his actions.

  4. While I agree that criminal cooperation is definitely an important part of our legal system, think of it this way: would you be okay with this sentence if this attack occurred on our soil? I pose this question so that as American citizens, we can put it into perspective as to why so many people are outraged at his sentence. This terrorist attack is the deadliest that Mumbai has seen, just as 9/11 was the worst attack that occurred on our soil. The body count compares to the 2006 Mumbai train bombing, but these coordinated attacks over 3 days on multiple targets made it more heinous than any other attacks on the city. Although Headley didn’t “pull the trigger,” he made several trips to India before the attacks, gathered GPS information, and allegedly obtained support from the Pakistani Intelligence Agency to help plan the attack. Since these attacks were extremely coordinated and strategic, it is likely that Headley played a vital role in the consummation of this mass murder. He was also a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba for years, which is one of the deadliest Islamic terrorist organizations. While I recognize Headley’s potential intelligence contributions he could make as a result of this lessened sentence, I don’t think it justifies 35 years in prison.

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