In one of his final official acts as president, George W. Bush on Monday commuted the sentences of Texas Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, who were convicted of shooting a fleeing drug smuggler in the buttocks and accused of covering it up. The pair’s conviction became a rallying point for the anti-immigration movement, including former Rep. Tom Tancredo. The Colorado Republican said earlier this month that their continued imprisonment was his “biggest regret” as he prepared to leave Congress. “I think about those guys in prison, and I’m just sick at heart,” Tancredo told The Denver Post. “I’ve done everything I can.”
Ramos and Compean will be released from prison in March after serving more than two years of their 11- and 12-year sentences, respectively, according to the Department of Justice. Bush didn’t pardon them — the conviction stays on their record — and let stand the other terms of their sentences, including three years’ probation and a $2,000 fine apiece.
Tancredo, who stepped down this year after five terms in Congress, hatched legislation in 2007 to free Ramos and Compean and made an impassioned plea for justice from the House floor:
A week earlier, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, asked Bush to commute Ramos and Compean’s sentences, in part because the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the cases applied a law that adds a 10-year sentence for using a firearm in a crime of violence. Since then, hundreds of members of Congress have called for clemency for the pair, including a last-minute plea signed by all but two members of the Texas delegation. An online petition asking Bush to pardon the border agents had gathered 424,645 signatures by Monday morning.
The Dallas Morning News reported Monday on the thinking behind Bush’s grant of clemency:
“The president feels that they received a fair trial and it was a just verdict. These were law enforcement officers and they have the highest obligation to obey the law, and have to be held to accountable when they breech their responsibilities,” said a senior White House official, insisting on anonymity because clemency decisions are rarely discussed.
The official said Bush decided against a pardon because he felt the agents deserved to be punished, but “the president was concerned, as were many other Americans, including members of Congress from both sides of the aisle” that the agents’ sentences were overly harsh — especially since they have been held in isolation for safety reasons.
The man wounded by a shotgun blast from the border agents, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, was convicted last year on new charges of smuggling “a ton” of marijuana into the United States. He was sentenced to 57 months in prison. Prosecutors gave Aldrete-Davila a limited grant of immunity to testify against Ramos and Compean, claiming there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute him for the incident on Feb. 17, 2005.
An extensive Myth vs. Reality release on the Ramos-Compean prosecution issued by the San Antonio U.S. attorney’s office is available. The Department of Justice maintains an extensive list of documents, including trial transcripts, from the Ramos-Compean case.
A lengthy 2007 Texas Monthly article, “Badges of Dishonor [pdf],” asks the question:
On a desolate stretch of the Rio Grande, two Border Patrol agents chased a fleeing suspect and opened fire, wounding him from behind. But they didn’t arrest him, and they didn’t report the shooting to their supervisors. In fact, they covered it up. So why are they being celebrated as heroes?
A 2007 examination by Salon’s Alex Koppelman, “The Ballad of Ramos and Compean,” explains “how the anti-immigration right — and Lou Dobbs — turned two rogue Border Patrol agents into heroes and got Congress on their side.”
On Monday, Koppelman reacted to the news Bush had commuted the ex-border agents’ sentences:
… I examined the two agents’ case and explored how the right had transformed them from two men who’d been involved in an unjustified shooting, and covered it up, into heroes who feared for their lives as they were doing their jobs. Long story short, people like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, Jerome Corsi — the man who co-authored the Swift boat book and has lately been pursuing rumors about Barack Obama’s citizenship — and Reps. Tom Tancredo and Dana Rohrabacher have badly distorted the facts of the case to make Compean and Ramos seem innocent, despite the fact that the two couldn’t even get their stories straight.
As you can probably guess, I’m not happy about this news, at all. This story got to me. I was raised in a law enforcement family, knowing that most law enforcement officials mean well and are just trying to protect us, but that there are some truly bad people within their ranks. I know very well how difficult it is to prosecute and convict a police officer for wrongdoing, and what a striking statement it is when that conviction happens. And I was also raised to know that the job shouldn’t be an excuse for wrongdoing; if a cop does wrong, they deserve punishment as much — or more — than anyone else. Reading the actual facts of this case made it very, very clear that Compean and Ramos had done wrong and that they knew it and tried to cover it up. That’s inexcusable.
The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder weighs in on the intricacies of the Ramos-Compean case as an anti-immigration cause célèbre:
Ramos and Compean are Hispanic, as are many border patrol agents in largely Hispanic areas of Southwest Texas and California, which adds a layer of complexity for those who want the see the case as another example of the reflexive, life-devaluing xenophobia of anti-immigrant activists. Of course, since cultural difference is (one of the many factors that are ) at the heart of the immigration debate, it may well have given some anti-immigrant forces an extra measure of pride to be able to publicly proclaim their support for Hispanics — these Hispanics, Good Hispanics, Christians, Family Men — as opposed to the stereotypical rootless Mexican who crosses the border.
Ambinder says the case highlights problems with mandatory minimum sentences rather than border control:
In any event, the real culprit here isn’t the judicial system — it’s Congress. They passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws that spell out long prison sentences for folks convicted of unlawfully discharging firearms. And liberals, not conservatives, tend to oppose them.