Mr. President, Free the Border Agents

For over two and a half years, the unjust prosecution and imprisonment of U.S. Border Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean has weighed heavy on the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.  

As more details about the case emerge, the louder the pleas for justice have become. The American people cannot seem to reconcile how two law enforcement officers whose job was to protect our borders from illegal aliens, drug smugglers, human traffickers, and terrorists could end up sitting in solitary confinement, facing over a decade in federal prison, for shooting and wounding an illegal alien in the process of smuggling over a million dollars worth of drugs across our Southern border in Texas.

For reasons we have to yet to fully understand, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in El Paso decided to pursue criminal charges against agents Ramos and Compean instead of against the real criminal, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila. He resisted arrest, assaulted an officer and left behind 743 pounds of marijuana as he absconded back to Mexico.

According to the prosecution, Mr. Davila was the “victim” and deserved to be treated as such. He was subsequently rewarded with full immunity for his crimes, free health care and unconditional border-crossing cards permitting him to come and go across the border as often as he liked, without escort. Unbeknownst to the jury, Davila was involved in another drug-smuggling incident several months before the trial. The prosecution, however, was well aware of his illicit activities and asked the trial judge to keep this information from the jury because it was not “relevant.” The judge granted their request because, after all, the illegal alien drug smuggler was the “victim.”

From the courthouse to the White House, it seems as though the politics of the Southern border demanded Ramos and Compean be the scapegoats for this, but at what cost?
Every law enforcement officer who discharges his weapon in a split-second, deadly force situation, now faces the possibility of being charged under 18 U.S.C. 924 (c) — “discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence” — which carries a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence. Since the law was enacted in 1968, the Ramos and Compean case is the only time this statute has been applied to law enforcement officers who are lawfully permitted to carry and fire their weapons in a potential deadly force situation.

Although the punishment was set by Congress, a point often made by U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, it is clear the case of Ramos and Compean is outside the law’s original intent. The legislation’s chief sponsor, Rep. Richard Poff (R.-Va.), specifically stated during floor debate in 1968 that §924(c) was intended to “persuade the man who is tempted to commit a federal felony to leave his gun at home.” Other lawmakers, including Rep. Thomas Meskill (R.-Conn.), echoed this sentiment: “We are concerned … with having the criminal leave his gun at home,” said Meskill.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office based its prosecution primarily on the testimony of the “victim,” Aldrete-Davila. Ironically, in November 2007, Davila was finally arrested, charged with multiple drug-smuggling activities prior to the border agents’ trial, pleaded guilty to all charges and sentenced to 9 and a half years in prison — less time than Ramos and Compean. During Davila’s sentencing hearing this past summer, the same prosecutors who portrayed him as a victim and one-time offender when he was their star witness against Ramos and Compean now characterized him as “a major participant in a systematic form of drug trafficking.”

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the average sentence for sexual abuse is eight years, manslaughter four years, assault three years and firearms cases, less than three years. Ramos and Compean’s sentences? 11 and 12 years, respectively. Obviously, their punishment is profoundly disproportionate and harsh.

Even U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton as recently as Nov.14, 2008, said, “The only question, I think a legitimate question, is: ‘Is the punishment too harsh?’ I have always said the punishment in this case was harsh.” Mr. Sutton has often repeated this claim, including in his July 17, 2007, Senate testimony in which he stated, “Some say it’s too much time, and I have some sympathy for that.” He has also implied that, had the jury been aware of the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, they probably would not have convicted the agents. Even Davila told a reporter he thought the penalties were excessive.

Ramos and Compean were not rogue or corrupt officers. They did not wake up the morning of Feb. 17, 2005, intent on committing a crime, unlike Davila. On that fateful day, they put on their uniforms, strapped on their badges and guns to protect our families from illegal alien criminals like Aldrete Davila. Some mistakes may have been made that day, but by no means should Ramos and Compean be in prison for the next decade as a result.

In retrospect, there are many victims in this case, and the drug smuggler certainly isn’t one of them. Border security, law enforcement, the judicial system, and the families (two wives without their husbands and six children without their fathers) are all victims of the misguided ambition of a political prosecution. Agent Ramos’s youngest son, Jacob, now 8, was asked what he wanted to be when he grows up and he said without hesitation, “a Border Patrol agent, like my dad.”

There is still time for President Bush to do the right thing. The agents and their families have suffered enough. Will the President allow little Jacob to grow up with his faith in justice in America intact? Mr. President, it is up to you. If you are unwilling to pardon Ramos and Compean, at least commute their decade-long sentences and bring them home.