- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009


On his final full day in office, President Bush commuted the prison sentences of two former U.S. Border Patrol agents whose convictions in the shooting and wounding of a Mexican drug smuggler created a national outcry.

The decision to commute the sentences of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, announced by the Justice Department, came two years after the agents began serving sentences of 11 and 12 years respectively. The two are expected to be released from prison within two months and serve three years of supervised release, the department said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told The Washington Times that Mr. Bush would issue no more commutations or pardons before Barack Obama succeeds him Tuesday.

Including the two agents, Mr. Bush has commuted the sentences of 11 people and granted 189 pardons, the smallest number since his father issued 77 pardons and commutations during a one-term presidency. In comparison, President Clinton granted 396 pardons and 61 commutations.

Despite speculation, Mr. Bush did not issue blanket pardons for those involved in harsh interrogations of terrorist suspects or take action that could prevent the prosecution of his former attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, for interfering in the investigation of politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys.

Mr. Bush commuted the 2½-year sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, in 2007 before Mr. Libby served any time in prison. He was convicted of obstruction of justice in the disclosure of the identity of a CIA employee, Valerie Plame.

Legislation passed in 2008 and signed by Mr. Bush gave immunity to those involved in U.S. government surveillance of communications in the search for terrorist suspects and plots.

Mr. Bush’s decision Monday elated the agents’ wives, who had appealed repeatedly for their husbands to be set free.

Patty Compean said she learned of the commutations from reporters. She told The Times that she was in shock and that she contacted the prison in Ohio where her husband is detained. She did not, however, get a chance to speak with her husband, who has been in solitary confinement for his own protection since his incarceration. She said the prison told her he had been informed of the decision.

“I’m so happy,” Mrs. Compean told The Times. “There are no words to describe the way I feel. I never stopped believing.”

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, representing more than 15,000 border agents, said the council is “ecstatic.”

“At the same time it is extremely disappointing that the president waited till the very last minute to commute their sentences,” Mr. Bonner said. “All of the evidence necessary to reach this result [was there] before they were incarcerated.”

Monica Ramos said she believed all along that the president would help free her husband.

“It’s like the nightmare will finally be over,” she said. “We can have a new life, a new beginning.”

Both Republicans and Democrats appealed to Mr. Bush to take action.

Last Wednesday, a dozen House members held a news conference at the Capitol to urge Mr. Bush to commute the sentences. Nearly the entire congressional delegation from Texas sought clemency for the former agents from Mr. Bush, a former Texas governor.

The Times documented the plight of the agents in more than three dozen stories, beginning in October 2006. The stories were cited by several members of Congress, who called on Mr. Bush to either pardon the agents or commute their sentences.

At one point, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office prosecuted the case, said in an interview with The Times that “punishment was high” but the sentences had been mandated by Congress.

The Times also reported that Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar’s failure to speak up for the agents had resulted in a 100-0 vote on a “no confidence” resolution by the leadership of the union that represents the agency’s non-supervisory agents. Mr. Aguilar was given a $61,200 bonus by Mr. Bush for his leadership of the agency.

Mr. Sutton, in a statement Monday, said the “president has concluded that Compean and Ramos have been sufficiently punished.”

He added that he had “the highest respect” for Mr. Bush’s decision to commute the sentences rather than grant pardons. He said the two former agents “had been justly convicted and that their status as convicted felons should remain in place.”

The two, who became a cause celebre among conservatives and on talk shows, were convicted of shooting Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila while he was fleeing from a van he had ditched near the U.S.-Mexico border. The van turned out to be carrying nearly $1 million in marijuana.

Compean fired numerous shots at the fleeing suspect after scuffling with him.

Ramos heard the shots and ran after Aldrete-Davila. Ramos testified that the suspect was pointing something “shiny” at him and thought it was a weapon. He fired the single shot that struck the smuggler in the buttocks.

Aldrete-Davila fled across the border but was found a month later in Mexico by Christopher Sanchez, an investigator with the U.S. Justice Department’s office of inspector general. He became a star witness in the trial against the agents, receiving immunity for the drugs he left behind on the day of the shooting, full medical care from the U.S. government and border-crossing cards. He hired an attorney and sued the U.S. government for $5 million for violating his civil rights.

However, in November 2007, Aldrete-Davila was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration on a separate trafficking charge. He was convicted in August and received a 9½-year sentence. The two border agents were convicted of assault, use of a firearm during a crime of violence and civil rights violations.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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