Senators: Prison Terms for U.S. Agents Excessive
By Al Garza,
National Executive Director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC).
Tackling a case that has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate, senators have denounced as excessive the prison sentences for two Border Patrol agents from Texas who shot and wounded a fleeing, unarmed Mexican drug smuggler.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee criticized the 12- and 11-year prison sentences given to ex-agents Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos, respectively. And they strongly questioned federal prosecutors' decision to charge the pair with using a weapon during the commission of a crime - a 10-year penalty that most often is used against drug dealers and other criminals, not law enforcement officers obliged to carry guns as part of their jobs.
"This really is a case of prosecutorial ... overreaction in charging," said Feinstein. She chaired the hearing, which was attended by the wives of the ex-agents and other relatives.
The senators bored in on some of the case's most nagging questions: Why the drug smuggler, who had been driving a van with a million-dollar payload of marijuana, was given immunity to testify against Ramos and Compean; why the trafficker was given unfettered permission to cross into the United States after the agents were charged; and whether he used that border-crossing privilege to bring in another million-dollar marijuana haul just months after the February 2005 incident near El Paso.
"The public sees two Border Patrol agents serving long prison sentences while an admitted drug smuggler goes free," Cornyn said, adding that he has "serious concerns about the judgment calls made during the prosecution of this case."
Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, strenuously defended his prosecutors' decisions in the controversial case, which has proven a headache for the White House, the Justice Department and Border Patrol. Sutton himself has been attacked as "Johnny Satan" and as the Mike Nifong of Texas, a reference to the much-criticized North Carolina prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case who was recently disbarred for misconduct.
"Agents Compean and Ramos crossed the line. They are not heroes," Sutton said. "They deliberately shot an unarmed man in the back without justification, destroyed evidence to cover it up and lied about it. These are serious crimes."
Prosecutors couldn't charge trafficker Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila with bringing the marijuana into the United States during the February 2005 incident because of the agents' misconduct, which deprived prosecutors of any evidence linking him directly to the van, Sutton said. As for the border-crossing privileges, Sutton described them as somewhat routine in cases where prosecutors need to gain access to Mexican witnesses, particularly in drug trafficking investigations. And Sutton denied that Aldrete-Davila can be directly linked to the second marijuana payload found in October 2005.
While Sutton, former Border Patrol El Paso sector chief Luis Barker and Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar bemoaned the controversy stirred by the case, they singled out Ramos and Compean for the blame.
"This has been a tragedy with emotional undercurrent. But there should be no mistake about it it begins and ends with the actions of Agents Compean and Ramos. Not the prosecutors. Not the judge or the jury, as has been suggested," said Barker, who retired as deputy chief of the Border Patrol.
Patty Compean and Monica Ramos often shook their heads in disagreement as Sutton testified. Afterward, they expressed satisfaction with the hearing.
"It actually started unmasking people," Compean said, demanding that President Bush pardon her husband.
Both men reported to prison in January, Jose Compean serving his time in an Ohio federal penitentiary, Ramos at one in Mississippi where he was beaten by inmates who recognized him hours after "America's Most Wanted" aired a segment on his case.
Both men are kept in administrative segregation to protect them from other inmates, confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and eligible for one 15-minute phone call home a month.
Patty Compean said her husband is bearing up well. Ramos' family said he has lost 40 pounds since being imprisoned.