Monday, February 12, 2007

Believe everything the government says about Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alsonso Compean — sentenced to 11 years and 12 years, respectively, for shooting at a fleeing drug smuggler in 2005, covering up the shooting and denying the smuggler his rights — and you still should question whether they should spend a single night in prison, among those they once helped put away.

Prison will be no picnic for these men. Agents Ramos and Compean have been behind bars at separate facilities for less than a month, and already a group of inmates have assaulted Ramos.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security released Inspector General Richard Skinner’s report on Ramos and Compean. Also, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, Mr. Skinner had to apologize for staffers who had said Ramos and Compean had admitted they wanted to “shoot Mexicans” — when it wasn’t true.

There are two versions of what happened at the Texas border near El Paso on Feb. 17, 2005. The federal court still hasn’t released a transcript of the 21/2 week March 2006 trial. I have been informed by news accounts, documents released by U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton and the feds, as well as the jury’s guilty verdict.

Supporters of Ramos and Compean say agents fired at drug smuggler Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila 15 times, because they thought he was armed as he ran toward the border. Was he armed? There’s no way to know because, after being shot once in the buttocks, he fled on foot to the border. They say the agents didn’t report the shooting because they wanted to avoid the paperwork. At most, the agents should have been fired for what happened.

Supporters also note that the feds granted the drug smuggler immunity from prosecution for smuggling 743 pounds of marijuana into the country so he could testify against the agents. Three agents who testified against Ramos and Compean also got immunity. Worse: Aldrete-Davila now is suing the government for $5 million.

Mr. Sutton can point to inconsistencies in Ramos’ and Compean’s stories. He is right to argue that law enforcement officials cannot be allowed to shoot at unarmed suspects or lie about what they do.

For his part, Mr. Sutton offered both agents a plea bargain with a one-year sentence. But at trial, the U.S. Probation Office sought 20-year sentences. Prosecutors can argue that terms are stiff because of federal mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed with guns, but it was Mr. Sutton’s choice to throw the book at the agents — charging them for assault with a dangerous weapon, obstructing justice, lying about the incident and willfully violating Aldrete-Davila’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal seizure — as well attempted murder, for which they were acquitted. That’s a long sheet for acts begun in the heat of pursuit.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat (no knee-jerk nativist), has asked for a Senate investigation. She explained the sentences seem “too extreme given the criminal nature of the defendant and his possession of large quantities of drugs, and given the fact that Mr. Aldrete-Davila had physically resisted at least one attempt by agents Ramos and Compean to bring him into custody. … Yet, these men were given sentences that some individuals who are convicted of murder wouldn’t receive.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, wants President Bush to pardon the agents. The White House says it can’t act until a transcript is available, and that should be soon. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush ought to seriously consider commuting the agents’ sentences, while making it clear his administration will go after the jobs of agents who misbehave. If a congressional probe uncovers exculpatory information, Mr. Bush could issue a full pardon.

As public outrage bubbles, the White House has engaged in defending this dubious prosecution. Some conservatives now defend it — when they must know there is no excuse for these long sentences. If Ramos and Compean had been running illegal immigrants across the border — running a continuing criminal enterprise and risking the lives of fellow agents — they would be looking at shorter time.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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