U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein concluded a Senate hearing today on the high-profile prosecution of former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean with a vow to look further into why prosecutors charged the men with a violation that requires a mandatory 10-year sentence.
Chairing the Senate judiciary committee hearing, Feinstein questioned the decision to charge the agents under 18 United States Code section 924(c)(1)(a), which requires the harsh sentence for using or carrying a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence.
Ramos and Compean are serving 11- and 12-year sentences, respectively, after a jury convicted them of violating federal gun laws and covering up the shooting of a drug smuggler as he fled back to Mexico after driving across the border with 742 pounds of marijuana in February 2005. U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton’s office gave the smuggler, Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila, immunity to serve as the government’s star witness and testify against the border agents.
Feinstein, during questioning of Sutton, argued the statute did not apply to Ramos and Compean in their pursuit of a drug smuggler at the Mexican border, because there was no underlying crime.
Sutton, of the Western District of Texas, said he did not make the decision to charge the agents under 924(c), and would not answer directly when asked whether or not he thought it was a good choice. He defended his prosecutorial team, however, pointing to their experience handling border-related cases and a record of competency.
Referring to the hearing testimony of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., Feinstein argued, however, the sentences for Ramos and Compean “are more than most people serve for murder.”
“We’re going to take a good look at this section of the code and see if there are any amendments that might be considered,” Feinstein said.
The California Democrat expressed incredulity when Sutton said he never was consulted about charging the agents under 924(c).
“I can’t believe somebody in this instance would charge this and never consult with superiors when we know there are consultations back and forth with [the Department of Justice in Washington] with lesser cases all the time,” she told Sutton, alluding to previous congressional scrutiny of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, brought up reports that while under immunity, Aldrete-Davila was caught in another drug delivery, but the judge sealed that information from the jury.
Cornyn pointed out the drug smuggler, under his immunity deal, was given a “humanitarian visa” to travel back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. With that visa, the senator said, Aldrete-Davila attempted another drug delivery in October 2005.
He asked Sutton whether it was a mistake to give the smuggler the visa.
The U.S. attorney said, first of all, he could not affirm or deny whether there was a second smuggling attempt, because the records are sealed as part of an ongoing investigation.
“If it turns out he ran another load of dope, it was a mistake,” Sutton said. “But we don’t charge people until we have competent, admissible evidence in court.”
Sutton – who previously apologized for the “passion” of his answers, explaining the hearing was his best opportunity to explain his side to the American people – then summed up his view of the case.
“The reason all of this mess happen is because agents Ramos and Compean shot an unarmed guy and ran away and covered it up,” he said. ” … There is no one to blame in this country for what happened but them.”
Along with Sutton and Hunter, testimonies also were heard from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.; T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council; Luis Barker, deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol; David L. Botsford, appellate counsel for Ramos; and David V. Aguilar chief of the U.S. Border Patrol.
Sutton acknowledged many Americans are angered by the fact that Aldrete-Davila has been allowed to go free while the men defending the nation’s borders are in prison. But he contended he had no evidence to convict Aldrete-Davila and was able to bring him back to the U.S. to testify only by offering immunity.
Cornyn questioned Sutton’s insistence he had no evidence, offering for the record a Homeland Security memo first reported by WND.
The March 14, 2005, memo recorded an interview with U.S. Border Patrol agent Rene Sanchez, who told of his phone conversation with Aldrete-Davila prior to the immunity agreement. Aldrete-Davila, described as a distant relative of Sanchez, allegedly said he was afraid to come forward because was trying to transport marijuana across the border when the incident occurred.
Cornyn asked Sutton why this admission would not provide a basis on which to prosecute Aldrete-Davila for a crime.
“It was the opinion of career prosecutors that that evidence – I’m not sure it was admissible – assuming it was admissible, that it was not enough,” he said.
A phone conversation across the border would need to have corroboration, he explained.
Hunter, who represents a border community in the San Diego area, said in prepared testimony the “U.S. government sadly decided to side with the drug dealer and prosecute agents Compean and Ramos for simply fulfilling their duties as Border patrolmen.”
Pardoning Ramos and Compean is the only way “to correct this terrible injustice,” said Hunter, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
“The men and women of the Border Patrol are certainly not above the laws they are empowered to enforce,” Hunter said. “But they must also know that when they must apply the necessary and appropriate level of force, their government will not work aggressively to ensure they are punished while lawlessness is rewarded.”
in his testimony, noted the agents, now in their 180th day of prison, both “are military veterans, both have unblemished work records. Officer Ramos, in fact, was nominated to be Border Patrol agent of the year.”
The congressman called it the “worst miscarriage of justice I have witnessed in the 30 years I’ve been in Washington.”
“The decision to give immunity to the drug dealer and throw the book at the border patrol agents was a prosecutorial travesty,” he said. “The whole episode stinks to high heaven.”
Rohrabacher questioned many of Sutton’s assertions about the case, including the contention that Aldrete-Davila did not have a weapon. He contended it was “totally disingenuous” of anyone involved in prosecuting the case to suggest there was no choice but to prosecute the border agents rather than the drug smuggler.
In his prepared testimony, Sutton acknowledged the case has been “the subject of widespread media attention and heated debate.”
After recounting the prosecution’s view of the case, he concluded: “The prosecution of Compean and Ramos was about our commitment to the rule of law and about two former law enforcement officers who committed serious crimes. An honest reading of the facts of this case shows that Compean and Ramos deliberately shot at an unarmed man in the back without justification, destroyed evidence to cover it up, and lied about it. A jury heard the facts and voted to convict. Faithfulness to the rule of law required me to bring this case.”
Rohrabacher also has asked a House committee to examine the case. The congressman wants to look at the involvement of the Mexican government in the decision to prosecute the agents and Texas Deputy Sheriff Gilmer Hernandez. Sutton’s office also prosecuted Hernandez, who was convicted of violating the civil rights of two illegal aliens injured from shell fragments that struck them as the officer shot at the tires of a van in which they escaped from a routine traffic stop. The van driver had tried to run over Hernandez.
As WND reported last month, Rohrabacher’s press secretary visited Ramos in prison and said he appeared emaciated, losing more than 30 pounds in solitary confinement.
Earlier, WND reported Ramos was beaten by fellow inmates when he was placed in the general prison population at the federal facility in Yazoo City, Miss.
Sutton’s office also prosecuted Border Patrol Agent Noe Aleman for lying in his attempt to legally adopt his wife’s three young nieces from Mexico.
WND recently reported a judge reinstated Border Patrol Agent David Sipe six years after his felony conviction for striking an illegal alien who resisted arrest.
U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., pointing to the presidential commutation of the prison sentence of former vice presidential aide “Scooter” Libby, has called on Bush to pardon Ramos and Compean.