A shocked silence thick with grief hung over spectators in a federal courtroom in Chicago Thursday as a victim of the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India faced one of the men who plotted the attack.
At a sentencing hearing for David Headley, Linda Ragsdale, a Tennessee author of children’s books, talked about the day gunmen stormed into the restaurant of a Mumbai hotel and started shooting. She said all the people she was eating with dove under the table. All of them were still alive after the initial barrage of bullets. They thought they were safe, but then the gunmen started going table to table to kill the survivors. Ragsdale was shot and the bullet travelled from the top of her body past her heart and stomach and exited out her thigh.
David Headley and the lawyers in the courtroom were all facing the judge, but Ragsdale turned to Headley as she told her tale of horror. She said it took four months for her to be able to stand.
She also talked of the 13-year-old girl at her table, Naomi Scherr. She says she watched Scherr take her last breaths.
In a three-day rampage, 10 gunmen killed 164 people.
Headley, a Pakistani-American, had used his western looks and American passport to travel to Mumbai where he planned the route terrorists could take into the city, and he also videotaped potential targets that were eventually attacked. Those included the Oberoi Hotel where Ragsdale was eating when the attack began.
Headley was planning another attack on a Danish newspaper when he was arrested at O’Hare airport.
Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald appeared in court Thursday to urge the judge to honor the commitments prosecutors made to Headley. Fitzgerald said Headley immediately began cooperating after his arrest and talked to investigators for two weeks straight about other potential attacks.
Prosecutors have said Headley, who was born in the U.S. to a Pakistani father and American mother, was motivated in part by his hatred of India going back to his childhood. He changed his birth name from Daood Gilani in 2006 so he could travel to and from India more easily to do reconnaissance without raising suspicions.
In asking for the 35-year sentence, prosecutors said Headley provided important information to them for prosecutions and to intelligence officials as well.
The Acting U.S. attorney in Chicago Gary Shapiro told reporters after court that Headley will be in his late 70s by the time he gets out of prison, but Shapiro said it’s important to reward people who cooperate to ensure future witnesses who are thinking of helping the government. “When we approach someone to cooperate with us, what are their lawyers gonna tell them about what they can expect two, or three or four or five years down the road when it comes time for them to be sentenced. That’s what this balance was about,” said Shapiro.
The mother of Naomi Scherr, whose husband was also killed, told the Associated Press that a lighter sentence for Headley would be "an appalling dishonor" to those killed.
"I feel that for the magnitude of the killings that took place, David Headley has lost his right to live as a free man," said Kia Scherr, who is currently in Mumbai. "This would be a moral outrage that is inexcusable."
Headley wore a gray sweatsuit and had his hands folded in front of him and his eyes turned toward the floor for most of the hearing. He said little, telling the judge that everything he wanted to say was in the letter he had recently written to the judge.
That letter is not public but Judge Harry Leinenweber referred to it when he said he had no faith in Headley’s claims that he’s changed. "I don't have any faith in Mr. Headley when he says he's a changed person and believes in the American way of life," he said.
Leinenweber told Headley that it would be easy to sentence him to death because that’s what he deserves. Leinenweber seemed reluctant to give Headley only 35 years but agreed to prosecutor’s request, adding that he hopes Headley spends the rest of his days in prison.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.