Prison doors clanged shut last night, leaving two Border Patrol agents locked up among the very types of felons they once helped put away. The agents' families have been wiped out financially, their kids will grow up without a father watching over them, their freedom has been stripped from them. What was the terrible crime that put agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean behind bars for sentences of 11 years and 12 years, respectively?
They fired at a drug smuggler, who had been driving a van with 743 pounds of marijuana, as he ran toward the border to avoid arrest. They say they did not know they wounded him in the buttocks, so they picked up their shells and filed a false report that didn't mention the shooting.
For that, Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney for Western Texas, prosecuted the agents. After a two-and-a-half-week trial, a jury found them guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon, discharge of a firearm during a violent crime, obstructing justice, lying about the incident and willfully violating the Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal seizure of Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, the Mexican drug smuggler, who, incidentally, is suing the Border Patrol for $5 million because his civil rights were violated.
Sutton isn't happy about granting the smuggler immunity, but as he told me over the phone, he didn't have enough evidence to prosecute Aldrete-Davila.
Sutton hates being called "an overzealous prosecutor." As he said in a statement, "In America, law enforcement officers do not get to shoot unarmed suspects who are running away and file official reports that are false." And, "It is shocking that there are people who believe it is OK for agents to shoot at an unarmed suspect who is running away."
As for the long sentences, they are the doing of Congress, which tacked 10 years onto federal sentences for crimes committed with guns -- and there is no exemption for law enforcement officers.
Let me say this: Border Patrol agents do not have a right to -- and should not -- shoot at unarmed suspects. When and if they do shoot unarmed suspects, they should be disciplined -- and that includes firing them.
In this case, however, Ramos and Compean say they thought the suspect was armed. Sutton says that's not true. Ditto the drug smuggler -- but he has 5 million reasons to lie.
Two of Aldrete-Davila's family members, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin that the smuggler had been dealing drugs since age 14 and, according to one, he "wouldn't move drugs unless he had a gun on him."
Sutton responded, "There's this impression that all these dopers carry guns," but mules -- smugglers such as Aldrete-Davila -- "almost never carry guns," because federal law "tacks on five years to their sentence."
Even if everything Sutton says is true, Ramos and Compean most certainly should not spend 11 and 12 years behind bars. I don't think they should spend a single night in prison -- not for what was a mistake (if the smuggler was not armed) made in the heat of the moment, even if it was followed with a cover-up.
Americans should not put men in frustrating and dangerous law-enforcement positions, then lock them up and throw away the key if those men do one wrong thing, especially of the sort that angry, scared men sometimes do. It is not as if Ramos and Compean were crooked agents running criminal enterprises and betraying their fellow agents. If they were, they'd probably be facing a shorter sentence.
As T.J. Bonner of the agents' union, told me: "It's going to be terrible. These are good cops going to prison. It's not as if they're bad cops who are going to be accepted into the community. The very people they put away are going to be in the next cell to these guys."
Asked if President Bush would pardon the agents last Friday, White House spokesman Tony Snow noted that a jury had convicted them after a long trial. "We also believe that the people who are working to secure that border themselves obey the law."
Bonner looks at Bush's decision not to pardon the two men as a signal that Dubya doesn't particularly care about securing America's borders.
It is not as if Bush has too many friends and too much public support. I've heard from many Americans who are outraged at these excessive sentences and don't understand why Bush has not used his pardon power to commute the sentences of agents who were just doing their jobs.
If anything happens to these men while they are behind bars, then what will America think of George W. Bush?