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American sentenced to 35 years for plotting Mumbai attack

CHICAGO — Minutes before an American was sentenced to 35 years in prison for helping to plan a deadly attack on Mumbai, India, one of his victims tearfully pleaded for a harsh punishment despite the terrorist plotter’s widespread cooperation with US investigators following his arrest.

David Coleman Headley, 52, shifted uncomfortably and kept his eyes fixed on the Chicago courtroom floor Thursday as he listened to the American children’s author describe the violent chaos during her 2008 vacation to India.

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Bullets flew past her check and panicked diners dived under tables as gunmen burst into a hotel restaurant then walked around executing people one by one, recalled Linda Ragsdale, at times almost shouting as she stood just a few feet from Headley during the sentencing hearing. More than 160 people died in the attack, including children.

‘‘I know the sweet sickening smell of gunfire and blood,’’ said Ragsdale, 53, of Nashville, who was shot through the back — the bullet passing along her spine and then out her thigh. ‘‘I know what a bullet can do to every part of the human body. . . . These are things I never needed to know, never needed to experience.’’

She did not comment after the judge imposed the sentence, but others victimized by the attack that has been called India’s 9/11 said they were disturbed and upset that Headley did not get the maximum life sentence he faced. With credit for good behavior, he could walk out of prison before he turns 80.

‘‘He lost his right to live life as a free man. He doesn’t deserve to be let out. He gave up that right when he played a role in the attack,’’ said Kia Scherr, whose husband Alan, and 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, were at the same table as Ragsdale and died.

It was prosecutors who pressed for leniency, saying they wanted Headley to get no more than 35 years as credit for his almost immediate cooperation after his 2009 arrest and providing intelligence about terrorist networks, including the Pakistani-based group that mounted the attack. Rewarding Headley with the hope of at least a few years of freedom, they said, would encourage future suspects in terrorist cases to spill their secrets.

A somber Judge Harry Leinenweber sounded reluctant about imposing the lesser sentence, saying the Mumbai assault was so unfathomable and terrifying that, ‘‘perhaps the lucky ones were the ones who didn’t survive.’’

‘‘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.

Ragsdale, the only victim to address the court during Thursday’s hearing, also read a text message from Kia Scherr to the judge, in which Scherr implored the court not to give Headley less than life in prison and asserting that anything less ‘‘would be an appalling dishonor.’’

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