Thursday, January 15, 2009

Monica Ramos and Patty Compean still have hope.

It is the slim hope that President Bush will, in his administration’s final hours, commute the sentences of their husbands.

Ignacio “Nacho” Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, two former Border Patrol agents, were sentenced to 11 and 12 years in prison, respectively, in October 2006 in the nonfatal shooting of a now-convicted Mexican drug smuggler. They have been in federal prison since January 2007.

The convictions of the two men led to an outcry across the nation, and nearly a half-million signatures were collected for a presidential pardon. The notoriety of the case also forced prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in the Western District of Texas to explain publicly why the two men were convicted of violating the civil rights of the fleeing suspect.

“Every day I believe that the president will do the right thing,” Mrs. Ramos told The Washington Times by phone from her home in Texas. “Our three sons have been devastated by this; there is nothing that can replace the time that has been already lost.”

The Bush administration’s treatment of Ramos and Compean - Mr. Bush has resisted previous calls - contrasts sharply with its actions toward the Border Patrol’s leader. Chief David V. Aguilar, whose tenure has been widely criticized on other grounds besides the shooting case, received a $61,200 merit-award bonus.

At the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, a dozen House members held a news conference to urge Mr. Bush to commute the sentences of the agents before he leaves office Tuesday.

“They were not in the commission of a crime; they were in the commission of defending our borders, and they should have been acknowledged for having done that,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.

The lawmakers - 11 Republicans and Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat - also said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office prosecuted the case, should urge the president to pardon the men.

“It’s justice, it’s humaneness, and it’s something that we would expect from people who are trying to do their job fairly,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.

The members said that if Mr. Bush takes no action on the case, they will take their appeal to Barack Obama once the Democrat becomes president.

“I will never give up on this,” Mr. Rohrabacher added.

Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican, said he had spoken with Mr. Bush recently “to urge him” to commute the sentences, and that Mr. Bush said he would look into it.

At his final press conference Monday, the president declined to discuss any plans for pardons or commutations.

“We don’t discuss pardons or commutations or where those may be in the process,” White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said.

Ramos and Compean filed for commutation with Ronald L. Rogers, the U.S. attorney in charge of pardons, in October. On Nov. 14, David Botsford, Ramos’ attorney, refiled an application for “clemency” with Mr. Rogers a second time.

Mrs. Compean understands lost time. Her youngest child, David Antonio, was only 3 months old when her husband was incarcerated, and the child has little connection with his father, she said. The other two children, she said, are learning to live without their father.

“The outcome of this depends on what we do with what we have right now,” Mrs. Compean said. “Even if George Bush doesn’t commute the sentences, we still have a chance with Obama. Who knows, maybe some more information will come to light. I’m not giving up, and I’ve found a way to make peace within myself.”

The shooting occurred in February 2005, after a vehicle and foot chase along the Mexican border in Fabens, Texas. Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, who was fleeing a van he ditched near the border filled with 743 pounds of marijuana, was shot in the buttocks.

Ramos contended that Aldrete-Davila was pointing something “shiny” at him when he fired the single shot that hit Aldrete-Davila.

Aldrete-Davila fled across the border with the bullet still lodged in him but was found a month later in Mexico by Christopher Sanchez, an investigator with the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Mr. Sanchez had received a tip from Arizona Border Patrol Agent Rene Sanchez, who happened to be a childhood friend of Aldrete-Davila in Mexico.

“Osvaldo had told Rene Sanchez that his friends had told him they should put together a hunting party and go shoot some BP agents in revenge for them shooting Osvaldo,” reads a memo written by Christopher Sanchez.

On the day of the shooting, Compean picked up the shell casings with the assistance of another agent, who was granted immunity from prosecution to testify against Compean.

The two agents were convicted of assault, use of a firearm during a crime of violence and civil rights violations.

Aldrete-Davila became a star witness against the two agents, receiving immunity for the drug load left behind the day of the shooting, full medical care from the U.S. government and U.S. border-crossing cards that later were found to have been used by him to smuggle more drugs into the U.S. He then hired an attorney and sued the U.S. government for $5 million for violating his civil rights.

However, in November 2007, after Ramos and Compean were convicted and began serving their sentences, Aldrete-Davila was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration on a separate trafficking charge, and admitted smuggling more drugs into the U.S.

Aldrete-Davila was convicted by a jury for narcotics trafficking in August and received a 9 1/2-year sentence.

At the time Aldrete-Davila testified against Ramos and Compean, the DEA was pursuing a case against him after accomplices identified him in narcotics-trafficking photos. However, the information was not admissible in the trial against the agents.

“It was one of the toughest cases for us to watch,” said a DEA agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. “We believed the president would pardon the agents after the truth came out. We still can’t believe what happened; it’s shocking.”

The complex case raised numerous questions, not only about the actions of the agents the day of the shooting, but also about the duties of the Border Patrol. It led to numerous congressional hearings, culminating in 152 members, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who has become Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, signing a request that Mr. Bush commute the sentences.

Mr. Sutton has stood by the convictions but questioned the sentences.

“The only legitimate question, I think a legitimate question, is: ‘Is the punishment too harsh?’ I have always said the punishment in this case was harsh,” Mr. Sutton said on Nov. 14.

The decade-long sentences were based on a gun statute that charged the agents with using a weapon in the commission of a crime.

The National Border Patrol Council, which represents 15,000 non-supervisory agents, has been assisting the families and advocating for the former agents.

“There’s no longer any question about the character and lack of credibility of Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. “He’s a career drug smuggler who was undoubtedly armed, and the physical evidence proves that he was pointing a weapon at Agents Ramos and Compean when he was shot.”

Mr. Bonner also criticized the executive branch - U.S. attorneys for pursuing firearms charges and the White House for not intervening in the case.

The two men are kept in segregated housing units, also known as solitary confinement, for fear that other inmates will try to kill them. The procedure is common for former law enforcement officers who are serving prison terms.

Ramos was beaten up in February 2007 when he began serving his sentence at Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex in Mississippi, after being recognized by inmates from a popular television program. At that time, he had been imprisoned for less than a week and had requested not to be segregated. He was transferred later to the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix, where he has remained segregated.

Compean is serving his term at a federal facility in Ohio.

Tara Setmayer, communications director for Mr. Rohrabacher, visited Ramos on many occasions.

“The conditions of solitary confinement are deplorable, and these men are effectively serving a double sentence,” she said.

Each man spends 23 hours a day in his cell, gets one phone call to his family for 15 minutes once a month and has no television. When Ramos is moved from his cell, he is shackled and handcuffed.

For the families, there is only faith that their loved ones will be given a chance at freedom.

“I told him that we would stand by him no matter what,” Mrs. Ramos said. “All I want is my husband back. All my children want is to have their father back home.”

- Sean Lengell and Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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