Crossing the Line

The facts of this case are quite simple. Two Border Patrol agents shot at an unarmed man as he was running away from them. And then, they covered it up.

Before leaving office, President Bush commuted the prison sentences of former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean. My colleague Paul Burka wrote that Bush “did the right thing.” I must respectfully disagree.

First, some background. In 2007, I wrote about the Ramos/Compean case, “ Badges of Dishonor .” My reporting included reading the 3,000+ page trial transcript; interviewing Ramos and corresponding with him while he was in federal prison; reviewing Compean’s sworn statement to investigators and the testimony of the other Border Patrol agents who were on duty at the time of the shooting; and conducting interviews in the town of Fabens (where the incident occurred), as well as El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin.

The facts of the case are quite simple. Ramos and Compean shot at an unarmed man as he was running away from them. They shot at the fleeing man a total of fifteen times. When they discharged their firearms, they did not know that the man they were firing at—a Mexican national named Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila—was a drug smuggler. For all they knew, he was another illegal immigrant crossing the border. One bullet struck Aldrete-Davila, but the wound did not turn out to be fatal; he was hit in the buttocks and lived.

After the incident, Ramos and Compean covered up the shooting. They did not report what had transpired to their supervisors, nor did Compean mention it in the report that he penned afterward. Compean went so far, in fact, as to hide the spent shell casings he had fired and recruit another agent to help him in this task. Once they were discovered, Ramos refused to talk to investigators. Compean told investigators that the fleeing man might have had a gun—a fact that he had never before mentioned in the intervening month, when he had confided in two other agents, in detail, about the shooting.

Before trial, both men were offered generous plea deals by the U.S. Attorney’s office. Ramos was offered 18 months; Compean, 21 months. Both declined the offers despite the stiff federal sentencing guidelines that they would face if found guilty. After two weeks of testimony—in which both Ramos and Compean took the stand to tell their side of the story—the case came down to their credibility. A jury found them guilty on five out of six charges, rejecting only the most serious one: assault with intent to commit murder.

Neither Ramos or Compean has ever expressed remorse for their crimes. When I interviewed Ramos, he told me that Aldrete-Davila “got what he deserved.”

Paul wrote that the federal sentences that Ramos and Compean received—of eleven and twelve years, respectively—were “too harsh.” I won’t disagree with Paul’s premise that many of our federal sentencing guidelines are “too inflexible” and need to be evaluated. But why should the exception be made for these two particular officers, and no one else? Is this the standard that we want to hold our law enforcement officers up to—and federal officers at that? What kind of message does this send to Border Patrol agents in the field? And what if the facts of the case were the same, but the fleeing man had been black, the officers white, and the setting urban, rather than on the U.S.-Mexico border?

Worst of all, this commutation emboldens the very people who have taken up Ramos and Compean as a cause célèbre: Lou Dobbs and CNN correspondent Casey Wian, who cynically omitted key facts on the air so as to whip up public opinion; talk-radio hosts, pundits, and even U.S. Congressmen who dragged the reputation of U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton through the mud without being well-versed in the case’s particulars; and the scores of people who wrote frighteningly racist letters to me after the publication of “Badges of Dishonor.” Wrote one reader, “I think everyone crossing the border into the United States illegally should not only be shot; they should be shot dead. That will secure our border in a hurry.” Another wrote, “I don’t give a damn if they shot [Aldrete-Davila] in the back, front, side, or wherever. He was here illegally.” And: “The only ‘dishonor’ for these agents is the fact that they didn’t kill the wetback drug mule.”

The dishonor, I believe, is Bush’s commutation.

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