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Bush gets heat over imprisoned border agents

Times Staff Writer

Conservatives expressed bitter disappointment Friday that President Bush did not use the Thanksgiving holiday to pardon two U.S. border agents who have been imprisoned for a year for shooting and injuring a man now accused of drug smuggling.

“We had hoped that President Bush, who was compassionate enough to pardon two turkeys in the Rose Garden, might also have had enough compassion to pardon two law enforcement officers who spent their lives defending us at the border,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).

A group of Christian and evangelical leaders -- including Paul M. Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and David A. Keene of the American Conservative Union -- excoriated Bush, saying his inaction ran counter to compassionate conservatism and Christian values.

“It’s unfortunate that the president missed the opportunity to demonstrate his compassion,” the group said Friday. “Such an act would have exemplified the fellowship and spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday and put to rest heartfelt concerns over the inhumane treatment of these two agents.”

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The furor over the conviction and imprisonment of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean has provoked considerable debate: CNN’s Lou Dobbs has made it a staple of his immigration coverage and conservative bloggers regularly assail Bush on the issue.

The White House has said only that Bush would review pardon petitions on a case-by-case basis.

Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Texas, has defended the decision to prosecute the border agents. Sutton has said that he did not prosecute law enforcement officials lightly, but that “most agents would say what these guys did was outrageous.”

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have weighed in, saying the case highlights the difficulties of securing the border amid an intense national debate about immigration.

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After a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in July, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called on the president to commute the agents’ 11- and 12-year sentences.

“The sentence does not match the crime,” she said in a statement, calling the case an example of “prosecutorial overreach” and “a serious miscarriage of justice.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from El Cajon who is running for president, has collected 102 co-sponsors, including a handful of Democrats, for a congressional pardon for what he called “the extreme injustice of the case.” He called Bush’s inaction on Thanksgiving “a real lack of judgment by the White House.”

A recent development in the case could further increase pressure on the White House to intervene. The man shot by the officers in February 2005 has been indicted on charges that he brought marijuana into the United States during September and October 2005 -- the very period when he was in the country on a “humanitarian visa” so he could testify against the agents.

“The latest disclosures show that the government knew the alleged drug smuggler was a career criminal,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing more than 12,000 border agents. “He was their star witness. They portrayed him as a down-on-his-luck kid looking for $1,000 to pay for his mother’s medical care.”

Calling the prosecution “disingenuous if not outright deceptive,” Bonner said the president’s inaction is “a bitter disappointment to a lot of people.”

Ramos and Compean were charged with assault with intent to commit murder and with a cover-up. Prosecutors said that on Feb. 17, 2005, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila led Border Patrol agents on a high-speed chase ending about 120 yards from Mexico, where he abandoned a van with 743 pounds of marijuana and ran for the border.

Compean shot several times and missed, Ramos fired once, hitting Aldrete-Davila in the left buttock but failing to stop his getaway. Then, said prosecutors, Compean hid evidence. Compean and Ramos said they did not believe they hit Aldrete-Davila, so they skipped the paperwork required in all shooting incidents -- a lapse normally punishable by a five-day suspension. They have said they thought Aldrete was armed. In February, 2006, a jury convicted the two agents of tampering with evidence, obstructing justice, violating the wounded man’s civil rights and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, which carries a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence. The two have appealed their conviction, and the appeal is scheduled before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 3.

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Bonner, of the Border Patrol union, said the case has affected morale among agents.

“Agents have told me they’re hesitant to get themselves into situations that could blow up in their faces,” he said. “Part of the covenant of a law enforcement job is that you do your job and people above you will be there to defend you against bogus claims.”

Critics also are angry at the administration for keeping the two border agents in a medium-security prison that houses a large contingent of drug offenders, meaning Ramos and Compean must be kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

Within a week of entering the federal prison system, Ramos was brutally beaten by several inmates using prison-issued steel-toed shoes after an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” featured the case and prisoners recognized Ramos.

Some critics hope the appointment of a new attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey, might prompt a fresh review by the Justice Department. Neither the department nor the White House had any comment Friday about whether a review was underway.

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johanna.neuman@latimes.com


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