Border Agents’ Penalties Probed

Border agents' penalties probed

By Jerry Seper
The Washington Times
July 12, 2007

A Senate committee will hold a long-promised hearing Tuesday into the prosecution of two U.S. Border Patrol agents sentenced to lengthy prison terms for shooting a suspected drug smuggler in the buttocks as he fled back into Mexico.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who raised questions about the prosecutions in February, will preside over the Judiciary Committee hearing. She is chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security.

“Border Patrol agents have a difficult and often dangerous job in guarding our nation's borders,” she said in letters to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “I believe that aggressive prosecution of Border Patrol agents has a chilling effect on their ability to carry out their duties and on the morale of all agents.

“I am extremely concerned about how this case continues to unfold,” she said.

Ignacio Ramos, 37, and Jose Alonso Compean, 28, were sentenced in October to 11- and 12-year prison terms, respectively, for shooting Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila, a Mexican national, as he fled into Mexico after abandoning 743 pounds of marijuana near Fabens, Texas.

Mr. Aldrete-Davila was located in Mexico by Homeland Security officials and returned to the United States under a grant of immunity to testify against the agents. The agents said they fired at the man after he pointed what they thought was a gun at them.

Mrs. Feinstein has called the sentences “extreme,” noting the “criminal background of Mr. Aldrete-Davila … and given the fact Mr. Aldrete-Davila had physically resisted at least one attempt by agents Ramos and Compean to bring him into custody.”

She said neither of the agents had prior convictions or other aggravating circumstances to warrant particularly harsh treatment under the law.

“Yet, these men were given sentences that some individuals who are convicted of murder wouldn”t receive,” she said.

Although a witness list for the hearing has not been finalized, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office prosecuted the agents, and T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents the agency's 11,000 non-supervisory agents, said they have been invited and would attend.

“I'm happy to cooperate with Congress in any way that I can,” Mr. Sutton said. “All we can do is put the facts out and hope that reasonable people will hear them.”

Mrs. Feinstein, as she did in her letters, is expected to ask why the agents faced charges calling for mandatory 10-year sentences; why prosecutors originally indicted them on three criminal charges but expanded the indictment on three occasions, adding new charges each time; and who in Washington approved each set of charges filed.

She also wants to know whether anyone in Washington reviewed or approved the immunity deal for Mr. Aldrete-Davila.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and a Judiciary Committee member, said this week that he thinks the Justice Department “believes all the facts have not come out on this prosecution and would welcome the opportunity to explain its decisions.”

In January, Mr. Cornyn called for an investigation into the granting of immunity to a “drug dealer in exchange for his testimony against the agents.” He repeated that request in a letter this week to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who turned over the hearing gavel to Mrs. Feinstein.

“I recognize the strong public interest in a case where the American public sees two Border Patrol agents serving long prison sentences while an admitted drug dealer remains free,” Mr. Cornyn said.

The sentences also have been criticized by House members, 100 of whom co-sponsor a bill by Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, calling for a congressional pardon. Republican Reps. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Ted Poe of Texas, Dana Rohrabacher of California, Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and Joe Wilson of South Carolina have asked President Bush to pardon the agents.