McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
The standard corrugated steel plate
border fence pitches down into a canyon
and then up the other side.
U.S. Border Patrol photo
That question is at the heart of a nationwide uproar over Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, who are beginning decade-long sentences in federal prison for the non-fatal shooting of a suspected drug smuggler, who was given immunity to testify against them.
Scores of Republican lawmakers, and thousands of grassroots petitioners, have besieged President Bush with demands that the agents be granted an immediate pardon. But to federal prosecutor Johnny Sutton and his defenders, the two Texas-based agents abridged the public trust by attempting to cover up an unauthorized shooting and must face the consequences.
"Prosecutors take cases as they come. We don't get to choose the facts and we don't get to choose the witnesses," the San Antonio-based U.S. attorney said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "We hate the thought of having to prosecute law enforcement because those are the people we work with every day. But nobody is above the law."
In an interview on the Fox television network Wednesday, Bush again said he is bound by strict federal guidelines on pardons and cannot immediately grant a pardon to the two agents.
Bush explained that "there is a series of steps that are analyzed in order for the Justice Department to make a recommendation as to whether or not a president grants a pardon."
And, Bush added, "we're not at that stage yet."
Bush's position is likely to further agitate a growing circle of mostly Republican lawmakers, who have repeatedly pressed the White House to step into the case. Many also blame the Bush administration for the agents' imprisonment, pointing out that it was Bush who appointed Sutton as federal prosecutor in 2001.
"There are so many questions," said Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., who has written four letters to Bush requesting a pardon. "The White House should intervene and the president should pardon these men immediately."
Other leading House members in the campaign include Republicans Ted Poe, Michael McCaul and Sam Johnson, all of Texas, and Dana Rohrabacher and Duncan Hunter, of California.
"On the face of it, the administration is taking the side of the bad guys," Rohrabacher said.
The union that represents most non-supervisory Border Patrol agents is also waging a vigorous campaign to obtain a pardon for the two imprisoned agents.
"The front-line agents, the ones who actually do the work, are extremely upset," said T. J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. "They're very concerned that the same thing could happen to them."
The fate of the two agents has inflamed the wider debate over border security and illegal immigration. And while the outcry on behalf of Ramos and Compean has buzzed across the Internet and conservative talk shows, a less vocal circle believes justice may have been done.
"If we take all the political patina from it, the pure issue is what do we want here on the border as far as accountability (in the use) of deadly force," said Kathleen Walker of El Paso, Texas, the incoming president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "We've had a clear violation of procedure and that's not something we want to promote as the status quo."
Ramos and Compean were convicted by a federal court jury in El Paso for a Feb. 17, 2005, shooting involving Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, who was trying to flee back into Mexico after abandoning a van containing 743 pounds of marijuana near Fabens, Texas.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone of El Paso sentenced the men in October — Ramos to 11 years in federal prison, Compean to 12. They began serving their sentences two weeks ago.
"He's taking it real hard," said Joe Loya, an El Paso insurance agent and Ramos' father-in-law. "These guys were scapegoats. He's not a criminal who belongs behind bars."
The two agents and their families have repeatedly asserted that their only real offense were procedural violations that would normally result in a suspension, at best. But Sutton and his prosecution team say the agents engaged in abusive behavior and overstepped their authority.
In an account of the case released by Sutton's office, neither of the agents knew the van contained marijuana. "The evidence was un-controverted that, at the time the victim was shot, neither agent knew the driver was illegally in the United States or whether a crime had been committed," the statement said. "The only information they had was that the driver had failed to pull over to be identified."
Aldrete-Davila leaped out of the vehicle and tried to run, but stopped and raised his hands to surrender after jumping into a ditch. According to testimony, Compean tried to hit the man with the butt of his shotgun but slipped and fell. Aldrete-Davila began running, and Compean fired 14 shots with his pistol. Ramos fired once, striking Aldrete-Davila in the buttocks.
The fugitive fled to Mexico and sought medical help. In a twist of irony, according to Sutton, Aldrete-Davila's mother mentioned the incident to a friend, whose son-in-law was a Border Patrolman. The agent passed the information to superiors, resulting in an investigation by the Homeland Security Department, the parent department of the border patrol.
The investigation, as presented by prosecutors, found that the agents tried to dispose of empty shell casings and filed a false report. They were convicted of 11 of the 12 charges in the indictment, including assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with serious bodily injury, discharge of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence and willfully violating Aldrete-Davila's constitutional right to be free from illegal seizure.
Other violations included intentionally defacing the crime scene, lying about the incident and failing to report the truth.
The agents' defenders have attacked Sutton's account as a collection of distortions and said the two lawmen were lawfully performing their duty and believed Aldrete-Davila was armed. Several lawmakers have likened the agents to combatants in Iraq, saying they risked their lives daily to protect America's border.
Among the most explosive elements in the case is Sutton's decision to grant immunity to Aldrete-Davila to enable an apparent drug dealer to testify against two agents with respected records of service *#8212; Ramos, at one point, was nominated as agent of the year before the recommendation was withdrawn following the indictment.
The agents' supporters also complain that the trial transcript has not been completed and made public, compounding their efforts to review the case.
Sutton described Aldrete-Davila as "a typical dirt-bag dope dealer" but said prosecutors had no useable evidence to link him to smuggling. Further, he said, the agents' "bad behavior" at the scene destroyed any chance of making a drug case. After the unreported shooting came to light, he said, prosecutors had no choice but to proceed with a case, using Aldrete-Davila as a key witness.
(c) 2007, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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