Editor’s note: WND’s Jerome R. Corsi scored an exclusive in-depth interview with U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton and spoke with him regarding his prosecution of Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, who went to prison Wednesday amid the protests of many Americans and angry lawmakers seeking a pardon from President Bush. Sutton agreed to talk to WND on the condition his interview was published in Q&A form and his remarks were unedited.
President Bush, while leaving the door open to a possible presidential pardon, has urged people to “take a sober look at the case,” saying it has to work its way through the system.
“People need to take a tough look at the facts, the evidence a jury looked at, as well as the judge. And I will do the same thing,” he said.
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton
WND: Do you want to make an opening statement?
Sutton: The most important point to start out with is that United States Border Patrol agents are truly some of the most unsung American heroes in this country. We put them out in some of the most remote, desolate parts of the United States, going up against drug traffickers and alien smugglers, in extreme heat and extreme cold, often by themselves, sometimes in the middle of the night.
The U.S. Border Patrol is one of the premier law enforcement agencies in the world. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the men and women in Border Patrol do it right. They are honest, law-abiding, public servants working to serve the American public and protect the border. They enforce the immigration and criminal laws of our country. Unfortunately, agents Compean and Ramos are not those heroes.
WND: You realize that many Americans are saying your prosecution of agents Ramos and Compean will put a chilling effect upon the 99 percent of the agents who you do characterize as being honest and wanting to do their jobs correctly and faithfully.
Sutton: That is one of the unfortunate situations about this case, that there has been so much misinformation out there in some parts of the Internet and some parts of the media. Frankly, if I only had the information that is given out there in some parts of the Internet, I would be just as outraged, if not more outraged, than some of the citizens we are hearing from. If the truth was that two Border Patrol agents were going to prison for just doing their job, that would be an outrage. The problem is that’s not the truth, that’s not what was presented in court, that’s not what a jury listened to for two and a half weeks.
If that’s what had been presented, then the jury would obviously have acquitted these guys. What these two agents did is that they shot 15 times at an unarmed, fleeing man. And instead of doing what every other agent does, namely to explain why they decided to use deadly force, these two agents instead decided to lie about it, cover it up, destroy the evidence, pick up all the shell casings and throw them away where we couldn’t find them, destroy the crime scene and then file a false report.
I would much prefer to be here discussing the prosecution of the drug dealer, Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila, and how we put him in prison for 20 years. But, unfortunately, we had no case against him, because there was no evidence tying him to that van. The two agents who should have been investigating the case instead of covering up the crime scene told us at the scene that they couldn’t identify him. The agents put us in a situation where there was no way to prove in a court that Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila was connected to that load of marijuana. We would not even know about him had he not come and the investigators for Homeland Security been able to find him through his family.
My bottom line is that it is the outrageous behavior of Ramos and Compean that got us here. They were not doing their jobs. They committed a number of very serious crimes. All that evidence that was presented to a jury of their peers in El Paso that was willing to give these two Border Patrol agents the benefit of a doubt. El Paso is a town that is very much a Border Patrol town. Border Patrol is loved and admired in El Paso. The huge presence of Border Patrol in El Paso has made it one of the safest cities in the United States, due to their presence there.
Both Agents Ramos and Compean testified at their trial. They told their story and they explained everything that they saw. Aldrete-Davila got on the witness stand. The other agents, who were at the scene, testified at the trial. Many of the supervisors testified. There was two and a half weeks of evidence that was presented. So it’s not as if these agents’ story did not come out. Their story was presented to the jury. The problem was that the story was very inconsistent and not believable. The jury rejected the story of the agents and that is why they were convicted.
Now, I would agree with you that reasonable people can argue about the punishment, whether the punishment was too harsh. But I think that once a reasonable person learns the facts – that these two agents shot at an unarmed man 15 times, lied about it, covered it up, destroyed the evidence, destroyed the crime scene, and filed false reports – I can’t imagine that there’s anybody who thinks that the prosecutor should just look the other way.
They can argue that this is too much time in prison. That’s an issue that can be taken up in another place, because the law is very clear that when you use a firearm to commit a crime of violence, it is a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence. Both the agents and their very fine lawyers knew that was a risk if they went to trial and lost. If people have a problem with the sentence, they need to talk to their congressmen about that law.
WND: There were only three people there at the scene – Compean, Ramos and the drug smuggler, Aldrete-Davila.
Sutton: No, that’s not accurate. There was another Border Patrol agent, agent Juarez, who was at the scene. Juarez witnessed Aldrete-Davila surrender there in the ditch.
WND: Was agent Juarez there from the beginning of the incident?
Sutton: I don’t know if agent Juarez was there from the very beginning, but he was definitely there to observe Aldrete-Davila surrender. That’s a piece of information I doubt many people know. Aldrete-Davila had surrendered in the bottom of a very steep ditch filled with some kind of sewer water. Once Aldrete-Davila was down in that ditch, agent Compean had him at gun point. Aldrete-Davila came out of that ditch with his hands in the air, with no weapon in his hands. Even agents Compean and Ramos testified to that, as well as Aldrete-Davila, as well as agent Juarez. So, everyone agrees Aldrete-Davila came out with his hands up.
WND: I’m told that the agents felt that when Aldrete-Davila had his hands up, Aldrete-Davila pointed at them or made a motion such that the agents thought he had a gun.
Sutton: No, there’s no testimony that would support that at trial. Even the two agents testified that when Aldrete-Davila came up out of the ditch he had his hands in the air, surrendering. It wasn’t until agent Compean tried to hit Aldrete-Davila with the butt of his shotgun, and when agent Compean tripped and fell face-first into the dirt, that Aldrete-Davila takes off running for the Rio Grande River.
WND: Why did Aldrete-Davila run?
Sutton: I’m sure he ran because he didn’t want to go to jail. He’s like all these other dirt-bag drug dealers; they don’t want to get caught. We catch them every day, and they know that when we catch them, they’re going to go to prison.
WND: Wouldn’t the use of deadly force at that point be justified, to prevent Aldrete-Davila from running away and escaping?
Sutton: No. We give these agents guns, and we want them to protect themselves. The message to Border Patrol is made very clear – you are allowed to protect yourself, and you can use your gun to protect yourself, if you have a reasonable fear of bodily injury or death. Meaning that if somebody is getting ready to hurt you or to kill you, you do not have to wait. You can use your gun and kill them dead. But then you have to explain why you did it.
The other important thing to remember here is that since I have been U.S. attorney in the El Paso sector, there has been 14 times when Border Patrol has used their firearms in some kind of confrontation. In four of those occasions, Border Patrol killed people, killed suspects. In every one of those 14 cases, including the four times when Border Patrol used their guns and killed people, every time the agents explained what their fear was, they explained why they shot, they followed procedure and explained it either to a grand jury or to our office, or to the civil rights division.
In every occasion they were cleared as justified shootings, including the four times they killed suspects. So, the message to Border Patrol, at least from our section of the border, is that we are going to give you the benefit of a doubt. You are well trained, you work in dangerous situations, and you are American heroes. So keep doing the great work that you are doing.
But, we have to follow the rule of law. We cannot shoot unarmed people running away from you, lie about it, cover it up, file false reports, because we are a country of law that has to be able to evaluate the behavior of these officers. I can’t imagine that we want to become a country like some countries in the world where police officers just shoot people running away, such that they are judge, jury, and executioner. That is just not the United States of America.
We are going to give these agents the benefit of the doubt, we are going to back them up in court, we are going to support them in every way that we can. But when the agents commit crimes, when they cross over the line, we cannot look the other way.
WND: Basically, then, what you’re saying is that if a drug smuggler comes across the border and he manages to be able to run away, unless the border agents can tackle him and knock him down, the Border Patrol doesn’t have an alternative except to let him escape.
Sutton: No, what it means is that we don’t just kill people who we don’t know who they are. And it’s important, maybe, to point out to your readers that at the time Ramos and Compean were shooting at Aldrete-Davila, they didn’t know he was a drug dealer. For all the agents knew, Aldrete-Davila could have been an American citizen, father of five children, who had a traffic warrant, and he didn’t want to go to jail that day. The agents didn’t know until after the shooting that Aldrete-Davila was a drug runner.
WND: Except that running away when the Border Patrol agents were trying to arrest him would alone, I think, in most instances be regarded as suspicious behavior.
Sutton: Absolutely, and we arrest these folks every day. Border Patrol is very good at arresting people. The Border Patrol agents work together. They are trained extensively on how to make an arrest. And, by the way, they are allowed to use their guns when they are in fear of bodily injury or death. But the law is very clear that you can’t kill people who are not causing you danger. If we want to change that law, I guess we could. We’d have to have a debate about whether that is the way we want to live. But that’s the current law.
WND: But Ramos and Compean didn’t kill Aldrete-Davila. They shot him in the buttocks. You don’t have a capital offense here because the guy was hit in the rear end.
Sutton: Had Aldrete-Davila been killed, the punishment would have been much more dramatic than it was.
WND: So, what’s the best thing for Border Agents to do then? Knock down a guy they think is a drug dealer, so he doesn’t run away, but certainly don’t shoot at him because you could go to prison?
Sutton: For the last 50 years, since Border Patrol has been patrolling, you do what every police officer does. You arrest suspects in the most efficient way you can. If the suspect tries to hurt you or kill you, and it’s a reasonable threat, you’re allowed to use deadly force. That’s the standard all across America.
WND: If somebody commits a crime, let’s say the person is a suspect in a bank robbery, and the police arrive on the scene, you mean the police are not allowed to use deadly force to prevent the person from escaping?
Sutton: Obviously, the police are allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves or a third person from bodily injury or death. So, if there’s a bank robbery and somebody is running around with a gun getting ready to hurt somebody or to kill somebody, I would say that is an absolute justification for using deadly force. Obviously, every case needs to be evaluated independently and the officer’s actions will be scrutinized.
But I can tell you that the benefit of the doubt will be given to the officer if he’s honest, if he explains what his fear was. Prosecutors know that law enforcement is under a lot of stress and that they have to make split-second decisions. Sometimes law enforcement officers are going to make mistakes. We take responsibility for those mistakes when they are made in good faith.
The problem is when you shoot people who are running away from you, who pose no threat to you, who are unarmed, then you cover up, you lie about it, you file false reports, that is a very strong indicator, and I’m sure the jury considered that this is clear evidence that these agents knew what they did was completely unjustified.
WND: So, the best thing for anybody stopped at the border to do is to throw up their hands to show they don’t have a weapon, and then to run away and try to get across the border before they get tackled. Is that the lesson here?
Sutton: The lesson is that the Border Patrol agents in this country are the finest law enforcement officers around. They do a great job, they will continue to do a great job, and we will continue to support them and the American people will support the Border Patrol. But Border Patrol needs to follow the laws of the land. Border Patrol needs to make sure they arrest suspects, but they have to follow the law. That law gives them great ability, great discretion, great authority to do a lot of things, including and up to shooting suspects who they feel are getting ready to kill them. But they have to be evaluated by a jury. As I said, in every case since 2001 where deadly force was used in the El Paso sector, we sided with the agent.
WND: So, Aldrete-Davila ran away, and as you say, at the time you didn’t have any basis to know who he was and there were no fingerprints. But yet, you found the guy. If you found the guy to give him immunity, why couldn’t you have found the guy to punish him?
Sutton: The way we found him is that he came forward and was in Mexico with a lawyer. So, the only way to get him to testify was to give him immunity from being prosecuted. He wasn’t going to agree to come to the United States, he wasn’t going to agree to talk, unless he had some kind of immunity from being prosecuted for that load. So, that puts the prosecutor in the terrible choice of everyone goes free, we got no case against the dope dealer, we cannot make a case against the dope dealer because there’s no evidence thanks to agents and other factors. And we’ve got two agents on the line who we know have lied, covered up evidence, shot 15 times at an unarmed suspect running away.
So we had to make a decision and they’re very difficult to make. Prosecutors in this country make those decisions every day. In some instances, we have to give what is known as “use immunity,” which allows whatever that person says in court not to be used against them. Now, if I could prove up the case another way, without using the words of Aldrete-Davila himself, we could prosecute the case. If I had a provable case that Aldrete-Davila had committed other crimes, I could prosecute him.
WND: But Aldrete-Davila was coming forth evidently in the view that he could gain something by admitting it was him. But, once he came forward, you knew you had 700 pounds of dope that he drove across the border. So, now here’s a guy with a lawyer saying, “I’m the guy who drove the dope.” Yet, you didn’t say, “Okay, I’m glad you came forward. Now we want you to come back here and face prosecution.”
Sutton: Again, we have to have evidence that we can prove in court. And we don’t have any evidence.
WND: But he gave you the evidence by saying it was him.
Sutton: But the thing is that he refuses to talk. He wouldn’t come to America. He refuses to talk. We had to persuade, like we do all the time in court, we have to persuade witnesses to come to court to testify.
WND: But once he came forward, you knew he was there. He was coming forward for gain, otherwise why would he come forward?
Sutton: There are all kinds of witnesses who come forward in court all the time to testify in court because they’re persuaded. I can’t tell you what’s inside Aldrete-Davila’s head. I mean, there are many times we persuade witnesses to come forward to testify in court.
WND: People are going to say once the guy came forward, regardless why he came forward, you knew it was him. You could go get him. He made an admission.
Sutton: But, remember, he didn’t make an admission. He refused to make an admission until his lawyer had an agreement for use immunity. He wouldn’t come to the United States and we couldn’t extradite him because, number one, we didn’t have any evidence against him, and, number two, we didn’t have a case.
It’s one of those situations where we gave up very little by giving him use immunity in this case, because we couldn’t prove a case against him. He did not make admissions until we agreed to give him immunity for what he was saying.
We’re in a terrible dilemma. We’ve got a corrupt drug runner and we’ve got corrupt officers who committed serious crimes and covered them up. We can either let everyone go free, or you can prosecute the one case that is prosecutable, which is serious and that involves the officers. Unfortunately, the case against Aldrete-Davila was not prosecutable because of these agents. There was no way to link Aldrete-Davila with that load of marijuana.
WND: And you’ve also got one very clever lawyer in Mexico who says, “Look, we can go and get you use immunity and then once these Border Patrol agents are in prison, we’ll sue the Border Patrol and you’ll come out of this with $5 million.”
Sutton: I would like to meet the jury that will give this jerk $5 million.
WND: I’m sure you will get lawyers who will want to represent Aldrete-Davila suing the Border Patrol. You now have a conviction against two Border Patrol agents who you have said engaged in egregious criminal behavior. I’d want to represent this guy and bring him forward to court so I could get some of that $5 million, I would think, especially if I were a lawyer looking for that kind of a case.
Sutton: All I can tell you is that I prosecute the crimes that we have, and the Department of Justice, either my office or other offices, will defend any lawsuit that may or may not be filed. People can file lawsuits. All it takes is a small fee to file a lawsuit, but it certainly doesn’t mean you’re going to recover anything for it.
It’s hard to imagine that any right-thinking jury would ever give this guy more than his medical expenses. Even though our agents did a bad thing and shot him, maybe we should be responsible for his medical expenses in patching up his wound, but as to giving him money, that would be an outrage.
WND: But, look – the guy is a drug dealer, but he’s got constitutional rights according to the way we interpret the law right now. When he comes across the border, legal or not, he’s got constitutional rights the moment he’s here. Regardless whether he’s a drug dealer, which he hasn’t admitted and you haven’t proved, he’s going to say, “These two border patrol agents shot at me. They’re in prison for it. That endangered my life. I deserve compensation.”
Sutton: So what’s the question?
WND: The question is that this basically provides a very good motivation, a very good incentive for others, and a very good way to make money. A drug dealer gets shot at, he runs back across the border, and then the perpetrator is the one who wins. It doesn’t seem fair.
Sutton: But, again, nobody’s won a thing. The only thing that has happened is that two officers who committed serious crimes have been convicted and sent to prison. Anybody can file any lawsuit they want, but there’s a big difference from filing a lawsuit and actually having a jury give them money. The facts of this case will come out. It’s hard for me to imagine that any jury in America would give this guy a penny over what his medical expenses are.
WND: I’m sure you can appreciate how a lot of Americans are going to feel. Even putting this drug dealer in a situation where he can go after a suit for $5 million dollars just seems wrong.
Sutton: Remember the people who put the drug dealer in that situation are Compean and Ramos. It’s their outrageous behavior that’s brought us to this point. And if there’s any blame to be assessed, the blame will be assessed against them. The United States government will defend any lawsuit that occurs.
WND: This thing about 15 shots intrigues me. What kind of weapons did these agents have that they could get 15 shots off? Did they have to re-load? How much time was involved?
Sutton: You may need to check the trial transcripts, but I believe that they were both shooting .40 caliber semi-automatic pistols, and Compean did reload. He dropped his clip and put in another one.
WND: So, Compean shot 14 times and missed everybody, but Ramos shot one time and hit the drug dealer in the buttocks?
Sutton: That’s correct.
WND: Is Ramos that much better a shot than Compean?
Sutton: Ramos is a marksman.
WND: And Compean doesn’t seem very competent.
Sutton: Well, get your adrenalin pumping some day and go to the target range one day and try to hit the target. It’s sometimes harder than you think.
WND: But the adrenalin wasn’t running, so the agents might have thought they were in danger from this guy who might yet have had a gun concealed?
Sutton: If Ramos and Compean thought they were in danger, all they had to do was explain it and they would have had a chance to be cleared, just like every other border agent who has had to use their weapon. Ramos and Compean knew that they weren’t in danger, that’s why they concealed the evidence, lied and filed the false report. That’s what the jury heard and after a two-week jury trial, listening to both agents testifying, both of their stories were rejected and they were convicted.
WND: So, it sounds like Ramos and Compean are the ones who were stupid. They should have just come back and said, “We thought he had a gun.”
Sutton: Well, obviously you should say the truth. Police officers need to say the truth. Police officers need to follow the law and tell the truth. They are sworn to protect the American people and follow the Constitution of the United States, which means to tell the truth. If he had a gun, they should have said it. If he didn’t have a gun, they shouldn’t have lied about it.
WND: So, is what you’re saying here basically that Ramos and Compean had something against this drug dealer and they just wanted to hurt him?
Sutton: I can’t get inside their mind as to why they shot.
WND: Why isn’t the penalty that Ramos and Compean should suffer some kind of an administrative penalty? Why is it that this reaches the magnitude of a crime?
Sutton: Because Congress passes laws, and in this case, Ramos and Compean violated a number of serious laws that Congress passed. And Congress sets sentencing guidelines, which account for a lot of factors, and Ramos and Compean fall within those factors. Just like everyday in court, those cases are evaluated. When people violate the federal law, and it’s a provable and prosecutable case, it’s brought. Then if the jury convicts them, the judge applies the law. And that’s exactly what happened in this case.
WND: But one of the things here is that the law was passed, as I understand it, to basically punish criminals who in the process of committing crimes also fire weapons. The law was never intended to punish law enforcement officers who may have fired their weapons inappropriately when somebody else was committing a crime.
Sutton: The law applies to everyone. And there is no exception for law enforcement officers made. Reasonable people, I don’t think, can argue about whether the prosecutor should turn a blind eye or whether he or she shouldn’t. But reasonable people can argue about whether the sentence is too much time. But that is an issue that needs to be taken up with a legislator to see if there should be some kind of change made in the punishment.
WND: But the original intent of that law, as I understand it, was to increase the punishment for criminals who when perpetrating their crimes discharge weapons. Is that not correct?
Sutton: I can’t speak to what the congressional intent was. All I can speak to is what the law says, and the law says what it says, and it doesn’t make any exception for law enforcement officers. It says that if you commit a crime of violence and you use a firearm during a crime of violence, it’s 10-year mandatory minimum stacked on top of what time you already have. No exception is made for law enforcement officers. The judge applied the law, and if people want to change the law, then you can talk to their representatives.
WND: As you mentioned, you do have discretion in certain cases, but somehow in this one the behavior of the two agents struck you as so egregious that you couldn’t turn your back to it, you had to pursue it.
Sutton: The behavior is egregious. I think once people find out the facts that you have two agents who shot at an unarmed guy running away who they knew was unarmed, and lied, covered up the evidence, threw away the shell casings, and filed false reports – I think most people will say, “Yeah, that’s outrageous. That needs to be prosecuted.”
If we think the punishment is just too high, then we can look to Congress and say, “Well that’s just too much. We need to change that law or have some kind of exception for law enforcement officers.”
WND: But this guy, Aldrete-Davila, had 700 pounds of marijuana in a van. That’s a fairly huge amount of marijuana. He’s not a particularly sympathetic character bringing 700 pounds of marijuana across the border in the night, which is clearly smuggling it in.
Sutton: That’s another piece of confusion out there, that this happened in the middle of the night, and that somehow it was all dark at the scene. This happened in the middle of the afternoon, about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. It was not dark. Everybody could see. I would much prefer to be here talking to you about the fact that we just put Aldrete-Davila in prison for 20 years.
WND: People are going to say that 700 pounds of marijuana is a serious offense.
Sutton: Absolutely. This is what my office is dedicated to. We think smuggling drugs into this country is a serious crime. We prosecute those cases every day. We are one of the highest producing U.S. attorney’s offices in the United States, if not the highest for drug prosecutions. We are very aggressive. We prosecute drug smugglers every day. I’d much prefer to be having that discussion, but unfortunately, the criminal behavior of these two agents brought us to this point.
WND: You’re clearly aware that this case, even if everything you’re maintaining is right, everything you did was correct, you followed the rules, and let’s assume that these guys deserve everything they got, still this is not a case that is going to go down easily with the American people. We’ve got an administration in the White House that is not taking all possible care to seal the border. We have Congress that passes a bill to build a fence, then we find there’s not enough money appropriated to build the fence. Politically, this is a case that has the potential to have an extremely damaging public relations impact on your office, you personally, and on the Bush administration. You’re clearly aware of that?
Sutton: I’m a prosecutor. I can’t speak to the political ramifications. I’m sure there are other people who are a whole lot smarter than me that can talk to that. All I can tell you is that as prosecutors, we have to evaluate the evidence that is brought to us. We don’t get to choose our witnesses. Our witnesses are chosen by what happens during the crime. In this case, Compean and Ramos chose the witnesses, because when they committed the crime, it was in front of their fellow Border Patrol agents and this drug smuggler.
We have to take the case as it comes. All I can do is be honest, do the right thing, present cases to the grand jury, and present cases to juries, get all the evidence out, and then let them make the decisions. That’s what happened in this case after a two-and-a-half week jury trial.
It’s really important that the American people understand that the facts that they’re hearing on some of these radio programs are just not true. There’s so much more to it. Common sense will tell you that Border Patrol agents do not go to prison for doing their jobs; they only go to prison for committing crimes.
And juries, especially in El Paso, are very sympathetic to Border Patrol; they give them the benefit of the doubt time and time again, because they live in that community, they protect that community, and they are heroes in that community. And in every other case where Border Patrol have used their weapons, at least as long as I have been U.S. attorney, the Border Patrol have been cleared for using their weapons.
I’m trying to get that message out to Border Patrol. And I think the rank and file of Border Patrol when they learn the facts of this case, they will understand that this was a big problem and that these agents committed big crimes. That’s all we can do and hopefully the truth will get out. And hopefully we’ll get a chance to let the American public hear what the jury heard.
I think the American public will say, “Oh, I didn’t know they did that and that and that, committed all these crimes. That makes it different. Yes, of course you have to prosecute corrupt officers who shoot people and then cover up the crimes. Of course you can’t turn a blind eye to that.”
And then if we want to have the punishment debate, we need to have that with representatives who can change the law, if it needs to be changed.
WND: So, would you be in favor of reducing the sentences of Ramos and Compean, or pardoning them?
Sutton: That is not my call. That call is up to the president and the White House. I’m sure they will take a good look at this case at the appropriate time following the procedures of the Department of Justice and the White House. Then the White House will make a decision on what they think is appropriate after they have studied the case.
I appreciate you giving us the chance to get out our side of the story.