07:56 AM CST on Tuesday, January 20, 2009
WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush commuted the sentences Monday of two Border Patrol agents who shot an unarmed Mexican drug smuggler, after relentless pressure from border-state lawmakers and conservative activists in a case emblematic of the fight over illegal immigration.
The commutation allows Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean to leave prison early. But it is not a pardon, and the conviction will stay on their records. Both will be on probation for three years under terms of the presidential order.
Bush made no statement on the case. But several lawmakers – including many Texans who signed a letter last week urging Bush to show mercy – hailed the president's decision.
"These individuals have already paid the consequences of their actions and beyond," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a written statement. "The president has now acted to right the wrongs of their excessive and unjust sentences."
The agents are apparently the final recipients of clemency from Bush. A senior White House official said no further announcements are expected. Presidents typically issue a flurry of pardons in the final hours of office and often save the most controversial cases for last.
The statement rules out a pardon for Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former aide whose sentence for lying to investigators about the leak of a CIA officer's identity Bush already commuted. It also dashes hopes for clemency by other high-profile convicts, such as corrupt former Republican lawmakers Ted Stevens of Alaska and Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California. Some had also speculated that Bush might offer blanket protection to military or CIA personnel who had interrogated terrorism suspects.
The border agents' case stemmed from a February 2005 incident near Fabens, Texas. The smuggler, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, was in the country illegally with hundreds of pounds of marijuana and was later convicted on U.S. drug charges. He is serving 9 ½ years in prison.
Allies of Ramos and Compean, including the union representing Border Patrol agents, were outraged that they were prosecuted under a law that boosts sentences when a suspect uses a gun while committing another crime – a law they say was never meant to apply to police or federal agents whose jobs require them to be armed.
Bush's handpicked U.S. attorney in San Antonio, Johnny Sutton, who had worked under Bush when he was governor, has long defended the prosecution, arguing that the agents acted improperly by covering up the shooting and hiding evidence. Ramos and Compean are serving 11- and 12-year prison terms, respectively, and each has been in prison for about two years.
The White House official said Bush decided against a pardon because he thought the agents deserved to be punished. But he deemed the sentence too harsh because of the use of the gun law and because they have been held in isolation for safety reasons.
"The president feels that they received a fair trial and it was a just verdict," the official said, insisting on anonymity because clemency decisions are rarely discussed. "These were law enforcement officers, and they have the highest obligation to obey the law and have to be held accountable when they breach their responsibilities."
Ramos' father-in-law, Joe Loya, told The Associated Press that although the four-year fight had taken a toll on his family, "we wouldn't give up. ... I knew sooner or later God would come through – that finally it would happen." He said his daughter, Monica Ramos, "could hardly speak" upon learning that her husband would soon be freed.
Immigrant advocates had warned that leniency would encourage aggressive tactics by U.S. border authorities. They offered little reaction to the commutation, though.
Mexican officials were dismayed, arguing that U.S. border agents must obey the law regardless of how suspects behave.
"This sends a very bad and difficult to understand message," Carlos Rico, the assistant foreign minister for North American affairs, told reporters in Mexico City.
Rico said Bush put the "many demands by anti-immigrant groups" ahead of other considerations. "The political maneuvering was stronger than the efforts of the Mexican government," he said.
Several law enforcement groups welcomed the commutation. But some questioned the timing and lack of a full pardon. Supporters of the agents had noted that Bush commuted Libby's sentence before the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney spent a day in prison.
"We're disappointed it took so long for the president to do the right thing," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 15,000 agents.
Andy Ramirez, president and founder of the California-based Friends of Border Patrol, said other prosecutions of Border Patrol agents need to be addressed.
"I'm absolutely convinced this was more about legacy than doing the right thing," Ramirez said.
Support for the agents was bipartisan, with more than 150 House members having signed a resolution calling on Bush to pardon the agents or commute their sentences.
"Today marks the end of an injustice," said U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. "Especially as drug trafficking and violence continue to assault our border, our Border Patrol agents should know that their government will support and defend them as they risk their lives for the security of our nation."
Bush conferred with White House counsel Fred Fielding and other senior aides before issuing the commutation, the White House official said. And the timing – 23 hours before Barack Obama is sworn in as president – stemmed from the fact that "he deliberated over it," not any political pressure, the official said.
As convicted felons, the agents won't be able to work again in law enforcement. The process of freeing them from prison could take up to two months.