Thursday, October 19, 2006

Two U.S. Border Patrol agents who shot a drug smuggling suspect in the buttocks last year as he fled across the U.S.-Mexico border were sentenced to lengthy prison terms yesterday despite a plea by their attorney for a new trial after three jurors said they were coerced into voting guilty in the case.

U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen Cardone in El Paso, Texas, sentenced Jose Alonso Compean to 12 years in prison and Ignacio Ramos to 11 years and one day in their convictions on charges of causing serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, discharge of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and a civil rights violation.

A federal jury convicted Compean, 28, and Ramos, 37, in March after a two-week trial. The judge ordered them to report to prison Jan. 17. The Border Patrol fired both men after their convictions.

“Federal agents who protect our border deserve our respect, gratitude and trust. It is a difficult and dangerous job,” said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office prosecuted the case. “But when law-enforcement officers use their badge as a shield for carrying out crimes and then engage in a cover-up, we cannot look the other way.

“Agents Compean and Ramos shot an unarmed, fleeing suspect in the back and lied about it,” he said.

Defense attorney Mary Stillinger argued unsuccessfully in a motion this week for the convictions to be set aside and a new trial ordered after three jurors — Robert Gourley, Claudia Torres and Edine Woods — signed sworn affidavits saying they were pressured to return guilty verdicts after being told by the jury foreman that the judge would not accept a hung jury.

“Essentially … they conceded their votes, believing that they did not have the option to stick to their guns and prevent an unanimous verdict,” Ms. Stillinger said in the motion.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Kanof, who prosecuted the case, told the court that the motion was not timely and lacked merit because “it does not constitute newly discovered evidence.” She said the affidavits were obtained six months after the defense said it had done what it could to obtain juror affidavits and after the court had denied an extension of time for filing new motions.

The judge denied the motion yesterday before passing sentence.

Neither man spoke in the courtroom.

Federal prosecutors brought the charges after Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila, a Mexican national, was given immunity and agreed to testify for the government following an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.

Aldrete-Davila was shot after he illegally entered the United States near Fabens, Texas, and refused efforts by the agents to stop his vehicle. Court records show he jumped from his van and ran south to Rio Grande, where he was confronted by Compean, who was knocked to the ground. Aldrete-Davila managed to cross the border and escape in an awaiting van.

The immunity agreement protected Aldrete-Davila from being charged in the United States as a drug smuggler. Ramos and Compean found 743 pounds of marijuana in the van he abandoned near the Rio Grande.

Aldrete-Davila’s attorney, Walter Boyaki, asked the judge during the sentencing hearing to do her job “and not have the possibility that we put a bull’s-eye on every illegal alien and say ‘Go get ‘em.’”

Mr. Boyaki, who said Aldrete-Davila was physically incapacitated and could not be in the courtroom yesterday, represents the Mexican citizen in a pending case against the U.S. government. Aldrete-Davila has filed a claim with the Border Patrol, saying the agency was negligent and asking for $5 million in damages.

Last month, Mr. Sutton said in an unusually detailed three-page statement that the two agents “fired their weapons at a man who had attempted to surrender by holding his open hands in the air.”

The government’s prosecution began after an investigator from the Office of Inspector General located Aldrete-Davila in Mexico. The investigator had been dispatched after Aldrete-Davila’s mother complained to a Border Patrol agent in Arizona that her son had been shot. The agent notified Homeland Security.

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