Free the Border Patrol Two

Posted: Jul 22, 2007 12:01 AM
Free the Border Patrol Two

When President Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby -- the former top aide to Veep Dick Cheney convicted for perjury and obstructing justice in a federal probe on the leak of the identity of a CIA operative -- he explained that he respected "the jury's verdict, but I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive." Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence, but allowed a $250,000 fine and two years of probation to stand. By that standard, Bush also should commute the sentences of former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean.

Last year, the agents were sentenced to 11 years and 12 years, respectively, for shooting at and wounding a fleeing suspect who was smuggling 743 pounds of marijuana over the border in 2005, covering up the shooting and denying the smuggler of his rights. On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a fact-finding hearing on their case. On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, sent a letter to Bush that said the agents' sentences were "excessive and they deserve the immediate exercise of your executive clemency powers."

Bush should heed their advice and commute these sentences. Ramos, 37, and Compean, 28, are not criminals. I've read the trial transcript. At worst, it shows two agents who made a bad split-second decision -- then wrongly covered it up because they realized they were wrong to fire their guns toward the fleeing Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, hitting him in the buttocks.

At best, it shows, as the defense credibly argued, that the two agents thought Aldrete -- who is now suing the federal government for $5 million -- was armed. They also thought the smuggler (who walked away after the shooting and fled the scene in a car that picked him up) was uninjured. So they decided not to report the shooting.

Feinstein wondered why authorities did not punish the agents administratively -- maybe fire them -- and why prosecutors failed to force Aldrete to name more drug-ring associates. She also asked why the transactional immunity offered to Aldrete did not require him to waive his civil lawsuit.

The agents' case has been made stronger by the fact that Aldrete was implicated in a second marijuana (753 pounds this time) smuggling while he had documents -- thanks to his immunity deal -- that allowed him to cross the border freely. Feinstein said she had a hard time understanding why someone known to have trafficked "in large amounts of narcotics" was "free to come and go from the United States." U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton testified that the document deal was "very regrettable."

The episode certainly undermines Aldrete's credibility.

Another issue: The feds' decision to charge the agents for committing a crime with a firearm -- a 924(c) violation -- meant a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence on that one charge alone. Hence the very harsh sentences for men who served their country in the military and at the border.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a former U.S. attorney, observed that the federal firearms law "is designed to deal with criminals who carry firearms in the commission of felonies and crimes of violence." Whereas, "These officers came to work with no criminal intent, no mindset to commit any crime."

Asked Wednesday whether Bush will grant clemency, White House spokesman Tony Snow explained that the Libby commutation is special because there are disputes in legal circles about Libby's sentence. Well, there are disputes as to whether the federal firearms charge should have been used against law enforcement officers who are required to carry guns to do their jobs and did not premeditate shooting a fleeing drug smuggler.

Snow also noted that the Libby pardon let stand the "significant punishment" of probation and a six-figure fine. Try this for "significant punishment": Ramos and Compean have spent six months in prison -- that's no picnic in that they are serving time among the very types of criminals they once helped put away.

In February, Latino gang members attacked Ramos in Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex in Mississippi. Since then, officials have had to put both men -- Compean is in a different prison -- in solitary confinement for their protection.

If Ramos and Compean were crooked agents, they would deserve hard time. But at worst, they fired their guns in the heat of pursuit, when they should not have.

If Bush wants to show Americans that he stands for true justice -- and not justice for his inner circle only -- he should set Ramos and Compean free.