Senate Examines Convicted Border Agents

Posted: Jul 18, 2007 12:02 AM
Senate Examines Convicted Border Agents

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized the heavy sentence two former Border Patrol agents received for non-fatally shooting an illegal alien who smuggled drugs across the border.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), who chaired the committee in place of Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) Tuesday, called it “a case of prosecutorial overreaction.”

After the hearing, Feinstein and Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) agreed they would write a letter to President Bush asking him to commute the sentences of Ramos and Compean.

On October 19, 2006, a federal district judge in El Paso, Texas sentenced former agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean to 11 and 12 years behind bars, respectively. A jury found them guilty of improperly firing shots at a Mexican national named Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, who was smuggling 743 pounds of marijuana into the United States.

The conviction has sparked outrage across the country. Several grassroots organizations are calling on congressmen to support the resolution sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Calif.)to pardon the agents. Hunter, who is seeking the GOP’s nomination for President, called the sentence “the most severe injustice [he has] ever seen for a Border Patrol Agent or any other uniformed officer.”

Former Chief Patrol Agent of the El Paso Border Patrol Luis Barker, who supervised Ramos and Compean at the time of the shooting, said if the agents had correctly reported the incident, their punishment would have been avoided. Regrettably, Barker said, Ramos and Compean “used deadly force when it should not have been applied; they shot a person in direct violation of firearms policy.”

“The agents destroyed evidence, filed an incomplete report on the incident in an effort to keep the shooting and circumstances surrounding it from leadership,” Barker said.

U.S. District Attorney of West Texas Johnny Sutton also testified at the hearing Tuesday. “Compean and Ramos crossed a line,” Sutton said. “They are not heroes. They shot at an unarmed suspect and then tried to cover it up.

The prosecution brought 12 charges against the agents. Four were dismissed. The strongest of these charges was 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c), which carried a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years for discharging a firearm during commission of a violent or drug trafficking crime.

Sutton said that when the jury convicted the agents of violating the law, they were not aware that it would require the agents to serve a minimum of 10 years in a federal penitentiary.

Feinstein asked Sutton when agents should be able to fire weapons while pursuing a fleeing suspect. Sutton replied, “If a person does not pose a threat to them, they have to use other than deadly force.”

“How do they do that?”

“They chase them off.”

“And, if they try to chase them and chase fails, while they are still yelling ‘Stop?’”

“That does not authorize them to shoot.”

“So, in other words,” Feinstein clarified, “any drug dealer on the border who doesn’t obey a stop command and runs, cannot be shot?”

“Yes ma’am,” Sutton replied. “Unless there are other circumstances, but just the fact they are running and they were a drug dealer is not enough.”

“No wonder so much drugs are coming across the border,” Feinstein said.

Sutton later said that if the laws were relaxed it would mean that “some [innocent] people are going to get gunned down execution-style by a cop.”

Republican senators Cornyn, Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) also participated in the hearing. Feinstein was the only Democrat who attended.

Only eight months after Davila was shot, the smuggler tried again to bring marijuana into the United States--possibly on a humanitarian visa issued to him by Sutton’s prosecution team. In order to bring charges against Ramos and Compean, Sutton said it was necessary to bring Davila into the United States in order to extract the bullet from his buttocks and prove it came from an agent’s gun. The prosecution also awarded Davila with immunity in exchange for testifying against the agents.

“Looking back, it probably wasn’t a very wise [decision]” to issue a known drug dealer a humanitarian visa, Sutton said. He said he did not have enough resources to provide people like Davila with escorts back and forth across the border.

“We just don’t have enough agents to sit on every dealer,” Sutton said.

Sutton said he could not say much more about the humanitarian visa that was issued because his team is still investigating Davila’s October drug run.

While that investigation continues, Davila is currently pursuing a civil suit against the U.S. government for $5 million in damages for the injuries he suffered.