Border case defended

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The U.S. attorney whose office won convictions against two U.S. Border Patrol agents for shooting a fleeing drug-smuggling suspect in the buttocks yesterday described as “the big lie” accusations that the prosecutions were not justified.

During a rancorous Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton defiantly said agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, now serving lengthy prison terms, committed “serious crimes” in a case that was not about immigration issues or the Border Patrol but the rule of law.

“Agents Compean and Ramos crossed the line. They are not heroes,” Mr. Sutton said. “They deliberately shot an unarmed man in the back without justification, destroyed evidence to cover it up and lied about it. A jury heard the facts and voted to convict.

“There is no one to blame for what has happened but themselves,” he said.

But Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and John Cornyn, Texas Republican, questioned whether the 11- and 12-year prison sentences handed to Mr. Ramos and Mr. Compean, respectively, were justifiable and whether the decision to grant immunity to drug-smuggling suspect Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila was properly handled.

Mrs. Feinstein, who chaired the hearing, asked whether the government’s priorities were “out of whack” when it made the immunity offer to “a drug trafficker,” noting that Mr. Aldrete-Davila — who abandoned 743 pounds of drugs as he fled to Mexico — was “not an innocent who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I find it hard to believe that someone trusted with $1 million in drugs is simply an amateur drug mule,” she said.

Mr. Cornyn said he had “serious concerns about judgment calls” made during the case, adding that Mr. Sutton’s office allowed Mr. Aldrete-Davila to violate the terms of his immunity agreement without consequences.

He and Mrs. Feinstein questioned Mr. Sutton on why the government gave Mr. Aldrete-Davila unlimited and unescorted access to the United States as part of the immunity agreement and whether he might have transported a second load of drugs into the country during that time.

They said that Mr. Aldrete-Davila re-entered the United States on at least 10 occasions from March to November 2005 and that the documentation authorized by the immunity agreement allowed him to cross the border legally at any time without notifying anyone and being unescorted.

“I would like to hear more about the policy that allows for this kind of unsupervised passage into our country and why someone who was known to smuggle in drugs would be given such flexibility,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

Mr. Sutton acknowledged that a “humanitarian visa” given to Mr. Aldrete-Davila as part of the immunity agreement may have been “a mistake” but said it is necessary for his office to have access to would-be witnesses in pending cases — some of whom live in Mexico.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) documents, which remain under seal, show that Mr. Aldrete-Davila was the focus of a drug investigation into his reported stashing of 750 pounds of marijuana at a house in Clint, Texas, in November 2005 — nine months after he was shot.

The DEA’s investigative reports, according to law-enforcement authorities and others who have seen the documents, said that the owner of the house, Cipriano Ortiz-Hernandez, picked Mr. Aldrete-Davila from a photo display and that the homeowner’s brother, Jose Ortiz, told agents that Mr. Aldrete-Davila brought the marijuana from Juarez, Mexico, and identified him as “the person who was shot by Border Patrol agents.”

Mrs. Feinstein also questioned why the agents were charged under a federal statute setting a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. She said that as the law was written, it presupposes an underlying crime, adding that there was no underlying crime in the Ramos-Compean case.

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