Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The prosecutor who won lengthy prison sentences for two U.S. Border Patrol agents for shooting a suspected drug smuggler fleeing back into Mexico acknowledged this week the “punishment was high” but said the sentences were mandated by Congress.

“I agree the punishment was high, but the sentencing guidelines were set by Congress and the judge acted in accordance with the law,” U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton told The Washington Times in a telephone interview.

Mr. Sutton said 11- and 12-year sentences, respectively, for Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean fell within the federal sentencing guidelines.

“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.”

Ramos, 37, and Compean, 28, were convicted 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 jury convicted the agents in March after a two-week trial of shooting Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila in the buttocks as he ran from a marijuana-laden van back into Mexico.

Sentencing guidelines established by Congress say a person convicted of committing a crime of violence and using a firearm during that crime faces a 10-year mandatory minimum, in addition to what other charges are involved.

The convictions and sentences have drawn widespread criticism from several sources, including some members of Congress.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, called it “the worst betrayal of American defenders I have ever seen.” Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, introduced legislation calling for a congressional pardon. Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, described the case as a “grotesque misdirection of our judicial system.”

Petitions with more than 260,000 signatures have been presented to President Bush calling for a pardon. Seventy members of Congress are co-sponsors of Mr. Hunter’s bill.

National Border Patrol Council President T.J. Bonner, whose organization represents all 10,000 of the agency’s non-supervisory personnel, said Mr. Sutton was not required to bring the mandated firearms charge, saying “it is quite doubtful Congress ever intended that this provision be used against law-enforcement officers who carry firearms in the performance of their normal duties.”

Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, said in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales — co-signed by Mr. Rohrabacher and Republican Reps. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, Gary G. Miller and Ed Royce of California, and Tom Tancredo of Colorado — the 10-year mandatory gun charges should have been dropped.

“This statute has historically been used in violent crime and drug trafficking cases,” Mr. Jones said in the letter. “It has also been applied to law enforcement when necessary, however, based on past applications … it appears that its application in the present case is unwarranted.”

Mr. Bonner also noted that both agents testified that Mr. Aldrete-Davila turned and pointed a weapon at them while he was running away. He said a doctor who removed the bullet said in court that Mr. Aldrete-Davila’s body was “bladed” away from the bullet that struck him, consistent with the motion of a person running away while pointing backward.

But Mr. Sutton said the agents were prosecuted because they lied about what happened, covered up the shooting, conspired to destroy evidence and filed a false report. He also said the agents “told their stories from the witness stand … including their claims of self-defense,” but the jury did not believe them.

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