By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
July 24, 2007
The case of agents Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio Ramos has become a cause celebre for conservative talk radio, bloggers and politicians. The agents were sentenced in October 2006 to 12 and 11 years in prison, respectively, by a federal judge in El Paso, Texas. Supporters say the initial verdict and the sentences were unbelievably harsh, an example of overzealous prosecution and of misplaced government priorities.
The critics of the sentence, many of whom opposed the failed immigration reform bill that Feinstein backed, also say the incident shows the U.S.-Mexico border is out of control because of drug smuggling and illegal immigration.
The two agents admit they shot and wounded unarmed drug-smuggling suspect Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila in the buttocks as he fled from them after crashing a van loaded with 743 pounds of marijuana. He fled on foot, they caught him and scuffled. He escaped and refused their order to stop as he ran toward the Mexican border.
Compean and Ramos opened fire. The two veteran agents say they saw him reaching for something, perhaps what they thought might be a gun, when they fired.
Aldrete-Davila made it to Mexico, and in a step that really riled critics of the federal government, was granted immunity from prosecution to return to Texas to testify against the agents. Aldrete-Davila also is suspected of subsequently trying to smuggle another large pot shipment into the United States, an allegation jurors in the agents' trial weren't allowed to hear.
San Antonio-based U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, who prosecuted the two, said at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing that he based his case on the theory that "the agents shot at and struck an unarmed, fleeing drug smuggler; that they deliberately failed to report the shooting as they were required to do; that they destroyed evidence to cover up their actions; and that they did these things willfully and in violation of the laws they were sworn to uphold."
Feinstein chaired the often-contentious hearing last week, and joined Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in writing Bush to urge he commute the sentences of Compean and Ramos.
"That hearing confirmed the concerns raised by many members of the public: that this penalty levied on these agents is excessive and that they deserve the immediate exercise of your executive clemency powers," Feinstein and Cornyn wrote Bush.
Feinstein's decision to seek clemency set the world of conservative blogs buzzing. Normally she is a ripe target on such sites for her support of gun control and abortion rights or her opposition to the Iraq war. But now the senator that these critics usually call a dangerous liberal has become a star in their eyes.
"Very seldom do I end up on the same side of an issue with DiFi, but it's nice to have a prominent Democrat standing up for Compean and Ramos, who I believe deserved to be put on administrative leave for five days instead of being tried in the first place," wrote blogger John Hawkins, who runs the Right Wing News and Conservative Grapevine sites.
Hawkins is also active in the presidential campaign of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who testified at the hearing to decry the treatment of Ramos and Compean.
Lou Dobbs, the populist CNN host who has made illegal immigration and the agents' case a theme of his daily show, also praised Feinstein, who with Cornyn first disclosed on Dobbs' that she would seek clemency.
"The family of Ignacio Ramos watched and listened to the senators make their announcement in our Washington, D.C., bureau, and they were moved to tears. They weren't alone," Dobbs wrote in his weekly blog.
White House spokesman Tony Snow, asked about the letter from Feinstein and Cornyn, declined comment about possible pardons or commutations of sentences. The two agents haven't applied for presidential action.
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