- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2007

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, a longtime ally of President Bush, is being targeted by lawmakers and others across the country because of his successful prosecution of three U.S. Border Patrol agents and a deputy sheriff on charges of violating the civil rights of illegal aliens.

One congressman accused Mr. Sutton of being “on the wrong side of the border war”; another called the prosecutions “the worst betrayal of American defenders I have ever seen”; one said the cases were a “grotesque misdirection of our judicial system”; and another introduced a bill, now co-sponsored by 90 House members, calling for congressional pardons.

Although some have demanded his resignation and others have criticized the cases as examples of the government targeting its own agents, the White House has vigorously supported Mr. Sutton — saying that although authorities should go after drug dealers and make sure the border is secure, “we also believe the people who are working to secure that border themselves obey the law.”

In his only public comments on the matter, Mr. Bush in January told KFOX-TV in Texas that the “Border Patrol and law enforcement have no stronger supporter than me,” but that there are standards that need to be met in law enforcement “and, according to a jury of their peers, these officers violated some standards.”

Mr. Sutton’s ties to the president run deep, reaching back to 1995 when Mr. Bush was the governor of Texas. Mr. Sutton served as his criminal justice policy director under Alberto R. Gonzales, who was Mr. Bush’s general counsel in Texas and is now his attorney general.

During the 2000 election, Mr. Sutton became coordinator for the Bush-Cheney transition team, assigned to the Justice Department, and he served as an associate deputy attorney general. Mr. Bush nominated him as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas in October 2001, and the Senate confirmed his nomination a month later.

In March 2006, Mr. Gonzales named Mr. Sutton chairman of the Justice Department’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, saying he had served with “distinction.” The committee gives U.S. attorneys a voice in Justice Department policies.

However, the prosecutions and convictions have made Mr. Sutton the target of politicians in both parties, law-enforcement officials, immigration reform groups and bloggers, with several calling for his resignation. Some members of Congress are promising hearings to look into the conviction of two of the Border Patrol agents.

The conservative political Web site Townhall.com last week posted a letter to Mr. Bush from Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative political analyst who founded Eagle Forum, saying, “I am glad to see that you fired some U.S. attorneys. But you missed one: U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton.”

Petitions with more than 325,000 signatures have been presented to Mr. Bush calling for pardons of Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, who were convicted for shooting a drug-smuggling suspect in the buttocks. They were sentenced to 11- and 12-year prison terms, respectively.

National Border Patrol Council President T.J. Bonner, whose organization represents the agency’s 10,000 nonsupervisory personnel, said Mr. Sutton “violated the public’s trust, and must be removed from office immediately.”

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and member of the House Judiciary Committee, suggested hearings on the matter and has asked the Justice Department to review the Ramos-Compean case. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, has asked for a Senate hearing, saying, “The facts do not add up or justify the length of the sentences for these agents, let alone their conviction on multiple counts.”

And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, took to the House floor in February to denounce Mr. Sutton as a “dishonest and overzealous prosecutor who has lied to us about this case.”

Mr. Sutton also successfully prosecuted Edwards County Deputy Guillermo F. Hernandez, whose shots at a fleeing vehicle injured an illegal alien being smuggled into the United States, and Border Patrol Agent Gary M. Brugman for using unreasonable force to arrest an illegal alien. Hernandez was sentenced to a year and a day, and Mr. Brugman to two years, a term that he has completed.

Mr. Sutton has argued that the press mischaracterized the prosecutions, particularly of Ramos and Compean, adding that the agents committed serious federal crimes including aggravated assault, making false statements and obstructing justice.

“Contrary to media reports, this case was not about border issues. It was about two agents who unlawfully resorted to deadly force without a reasonable fear that they or others faced imminent death or serious injury,” he said. “The law recognizes that agents have difficult and dangerous jobs and that they will make mistakes. But it does not give agents a license to willfully and intentionally use deadly force without justification.”

In the Hernandez case, Mr. Sutton said the deputy used unreasonable and unlawful deadly force, and a jury concluded that he repeatedly fired into the back of a fleeing vehicle that he knew was “loaded with people and not a threat to him.”

“Every day, this office prosecutes cases brought to us by law enforcement and defends the actions of federal agents when they are sued,” Mr. Sutton told The Washington Times, adding that since his 2001 appointment as U.S. attorney, 14 Border Patrol agents have fired their weapons in the line of duty — four fatally.

“In every one of those cases, the actions of the agent in using deadly force was deemed reasonable and the shooting ruled justified,” he said. “However, when law-enforcement officers commit crimes as serious as those in these cases, a prosecutor can not turn a blind eye just because the person committing the crime is a law-enforcement officer.”

In the Hernandez case, two illegal aliens injured by bullet fragments agreed this month to a $100,000 out-of-court settlement after threatening a civil rights lawsuit against Hernandez and Edwards County Sheriff Donald G. Letsinger. They initially had asked for $1.5 million.

“This is very bothersome to me,” said Sheriff Letsinger, who has publicly questioned why Mr. Sutton’s office ever brought charges against his deputy for what he has called a “legal stop” of a vehicle that ran a stop light and then tried to escape after Hernandez spotted several people hiding inside.

“I just don’t think the taxpayers should have to pay someone who broke the law and, in this case, someone who committed a crime by illegally trying to enter the United States,” he said. “It’s not any different than paying off a bank robber who happens to get shot on his way out of the bank.

“I lost a good deputy and a good man,” the sheriff said, adding that Hernandez does not plan to appeal the conviction.

“He just doesn’t trust the system anymore, and I’m sure you understand why,” he said.

Mr. Sutton agreed in an interview earlier this year that the “punishment was high” in the Ramos-Compean case but said that the sentencing guidelines were set by Congress and that the judge acted in accordance with the law.

“Reasonable people can certainly argue that the time the agents received was too much, but that is an issue that needs to be taken up with those in Congress who set the sentencing guidelines,” he said. “My job is to uphold the law. It’s someone else’s responsibility to determine if it needs to be changed.”

The guidelines say a person convicted of committing a crime of violence and using a firearm during that crime faces a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The least known of what has come to be known as “The Texas Four” is Mr. Brugman , who was sent to prison for two years for using unreasonable force “under the color of law” in detaining an illegal alien who sought with nine others to cross the border near Eagle Pass, Texas, 150 miles southwest of San Antonio.

Mr. Brugman was accused of pushing an illegal to the ground with his foot and was convicted in a case argued by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Baumann, the same man who prosecuted Hernandez. A key witness was a convicted drug smuggler whom Mr. Brugman arrested six weeks after the pushing incident and who testified that the agent broke his nose during a fight when he sought to arrest him for bringing marijuana into the United States.

The fight had been reported by Mr. Brugman to his superiors, and the drug smuggler, who was convicted and sentenced to prison, never filed a complaint.

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