Badges of Dishonor.

Since it seems this isn’t going away, and I don’t feel like waiting for yesterdays 200 some post link to load, let’s try again. (Besides, some said this deserved it’s own diary).The best account of the BP case case I’ve found (for those who prefer facts and evenhandedness over WND spin) is a Pamela Colloff piece in Texas Monthly called Badges of Dishonor (pdf file). It’s rather long (about 9 or 10 pages, still shorter than the transcripts) but worth the read. Some excerpts…

So began a Department of Homeland Security internal investigation that uncovered what appeared to be a straightforward case of two federal agents shooting at a man as he ran away and then concealing their actions. Investigators found that Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila had put his hands in the air and tried to surrender, but Compean—instead of apprehending him—had swung at him with the butt of his shotgun. Aldrete-Davila had bolted, and as he ran, Compean and Ramos had
fired at him fifteen times, with Compean stopping to reload his Beretta as he tried to hit his mark. Neither agent announced the shooting over the radio or informed his supervisor of what had happened; the official report about the pursuit made no mention of their firing their weapons. And rather than secure the area so that evidence could be preserved, Compean had retrieved most of his spent shell casings and tossed them into a ditch. Only when questioned by investigators a month later did he offer the explanation that he and Ramos had acted in self-defense; Aldrete-Davila had been “pointing something shiny” that “looked like a gun.” A federal jury, which heard both agents’ testimony, rejected their version of events and convicted them on five out of six criminal charges, including assault, obstruction of justice, and civil rights violations.

That might have been the last word on the case, except that when talk radio shows, CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, and conservative blogs picked up the story, they glossed over nearly all of the most damning facts presented at trial. Set against the backdrop of the national debate over immigration, a new narrative emerged, one in which Ramos and Compean were recast as American heroes,” unjustly persecuted by a government that cared more about amnesty for illegal immigrants than about border security. The story line advanced by pundits and bloggers focused on Aldrete-Davila’s own illegal activity, since he had been ferrying a large load of marijuana when he had crossed paths with Ramos and Compean. (The agents had not known this when they fired their weapons; the marijuana was discovered only after the shooting, in a van Aldrete-Davila had abandoned when he fled.) The jury had taken this into consideration and had still chosen to hand down guilty verdicts. But the stark contrast between Aldrete-Davila’s fate and that of Ramos and Compean’s inspired outrage. Two Border Patrol agents were being sent to prison, while a dope smuggler—who had been granted immunity by federal prosecutors in exchange for his testimony—walked free.

Ramos knew the protocol: A Border Patrol agent who fires his weapon is required to inform a supervisor within an hour. (Border Patrol agents are trained to shoot to kill, not to maim.) Yet as he talked to Richards, he never mentioned that he and Compean had just shot at a suspect fifteen times. Ramos said only that Compean had fallen while he was trying to apprehend the van’s driver and had gotten dirt thrown in his eyes. Richards called out to Compean, who was standing at a distance on the levee, and asked if he was all right. The agent assured him that he was, except for a few cuts on his hand and face, and said nothing about the shooting. Before leaving the area, Compean stooped down to pick up nine of his spent shell casings and tossed them in the ditch.

On his way to the station to write his report, Compean stopped to talk to Arturo Vasquez, a more junior agent, who asked what had happened. “That little bitch took me to the ground and threw dirt on my face,” Vasquez recalled Compean saying. Providing no further explanation, Compean added: “I had to fire some rounds.” He asked Vasquez, who was headed back to the levee, to look for the five remaining spent shell casings—which Compean had been unable to find—since he needed to return to the station. Vasquez knew that the scene of a shooting was supposed to be left undisturbed for the Sector Evidence Team, but in deference to his superior, he agreed.

Back at the station, Compean washed up and ran into Richards as he was coming out of the restroom. He had a cut on his hand that had drawn blood. Richards asked him if he had been assaulted by the driver, and Compean denied that he had. “No, I’m okay. Nothing happened,” the agent said. “I just hurt my hand when I fell down, that’s all.”

This left the U.S. attorney’s office with two bad options: grant immunity to a drug smuggler, or allow Border Patrol agents who had shot at a man while he was running away and then concealed their conduct to go unpunished. Although Aldrete-Davila admitted to driving the load of marijuana, federal prosecutors did not think they had a viable case against him. No evidence tied him to the crime, and his phone conversation with Sanchez would not have been admissible at trial. Without a suspect in custody, the case had never been treated as an active investigation; the van had not initially been analyzed for fingerprints, and the marijuana had been destroyed. Any case brought against him—if he could be extradited from Mexico—would have to rely on the testimony of the two agents, who the prosecution’s own evidence showed were hardly credible witnesses. So on March 16, Sanchez presented paperwork to Aldrete-Davila at the American consulate in Juárez, granting him immunity to testify about his actions on the day of the shooting. (“When you cast a play in hell, you don’t get angels as witnesses,” assistant U.S. attorney Debra Kanof later warned the jury.)

The bullet was removed by Army doctors at Fort Bliss, and ballistics tests showed that it had been fired from Ramos’s handgun, which investigators had taken under the guise of performing a firearms audit. That night, federal agents arrested Ramos and Compean at their homes on assault charges.

Not until his arrest, a month after the shooting, did Compean claim that Aldrete-Davila had had a gun. He had never mentioned the weapon before—not when he stopped to talk to Vasquez about his missing shell casings and not when he confided in another agent, David Jacquez, that he had fired at the van’s driver. Yet when he sat down to talk to investigators, he said that he had acted in self-defense. (Ramos requested a lawyer and invoked his right to remain silent.) “We tumbled and wrestled for a little bit,” Compean wrote in a sworn statement. “I got some dirt in my eyes and he got up and started running back south towards Mexico. When he was running south he was pointing something shiny with his left hand. It looked like a gun. This is when I started shooting.” He had suspected that the driver had been injured: “Nacho might have hit him . . . When we saw him climbing out of the river on the Mexican side, the alien looked like he was limping.” But he had not reported the shooting, he wrote, because he was afraid he “was going to get in trouble.” Before signing the statement, he added that he was unsure if the driver had actually been armed: “My intent was to kill the alien because I thought he had a gun, but I never really saw for certain that he had a gun.”

. Three agents—Juarez, Vasquez, and Jacquez—accepted proffer letters, which shielded them from prosecution, in exchange for their testimony. The trial revealed that the defendants had not tried to take cover during the shooting or warned other agents who arrived at the scene afterward not to stand out in the open. Luis Barker, the former chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, described a meeting with Compean in which he had protested his suspension after his arrest; the agent had given a detailed account of the shooting but never mentioned a gun. And while the defense’s theory rested on the notion that Aldrete-Davila had been pointing something shiny with his left hand, as both agents claimed, prosecutors showed that he was right-handed.

Prosecutors had offered plea deals to the defendants before trial, including an 18-month term for Ramos and 21 months for Compean, if they would plead guilty to obstruction of justice charges. It was a package deal that both men had to take and which they had declined. “It was simply the principle of the whole thing,” Ramos wrote to me. “I could have never lived that down.” (Compean, as well as Aldrete-Davila, declined to be interviewed for this article.) Ramos’s wife, Monica, put it more bluntly: “My husband was facing forty years, and they offered him eighteen months. Wouldn’t a guilty person take that?”

A female juror, who agreed to talk to me on condition of anonymity, saw things differently. “We didn’t believe they had acted in self-defense,” she said. “I think Compean got mad and started shooting.” As for Ramos: “He was a marksman, and I think he knew he hit the alien. That’s why he only fired once.” During deliberations, she said, the jury had weighed the fact that the victim had been transporting a large load of marijuana. “We agreed that we weren’t trying the alien for what he did,” she recalled. “That wasn’t the case we were given.”

“If they had come forward and said, ‘A dope dealer just pointed a gun at us, and we shot at him fifteen times,’ no grand jury in America would ever have indicted them for that,” Sutton observed one afternoon as we talked at the U.S. attorney’s office in Austin, overlooking the Capitol. “But we don’t hear about a ‘shiny object’ until a month later. They knew they had shot him, and they knew he was unarmed. So instead of reporting the shooting, they covered it up, destroyed evidence, lied about it, and filed a false report. A prosecutor can’t say, ‘That’s acceptable behavior,’ and look the other way.” “The evidence is overwhelming that these guys committed a very serious crime,” Sutton said. Sutton, who served as Bush’s criminal justice policy director when he was governor and worked on his transition team at the Department of Justice after the 2000 election, was an unlikely target for conservatives. He had been devastated by the letter from Schlafly, whom he described as “a conservative icon.” He insisted that he was not soft on drug crimes, as his detractors had made him out to be, pointing out that his office led the nation last year in narcotics prosecutions and was second in illegal immigration cases. Yet he has received death threats for his role in the case, and his e-mail and voice mail are often filled with irate messages. “All people have heard is that two American heroes are in prison for doing their job and that a drug dealer has been set free,” he said. “If those were the facts, I’d be furious too. But the evidence is overwhelming that these guys committed a very serious crime.” If anyone was at fault for the fact that Aldrete-Davila was not in prison, he said, it was the agents. “They didn’t put handcuffs on him when they had the chance,” he explained. “They had him at gunpoint, at the bottom of a steep ditch, with his hands in the air. Instead of apprehending him, Compean tried to hit him over the head with the butt of a shotgun. Even after they shot him, they holstered their weapons and walked away.”

Sitting beneath half a dozen framed photos of himself with the president over the years, Sutton marveled at how media coverage had allowed the case to take on a life of its own. Lou Dobbs and others “with big microphones,” he noted, had repeatedly reminded viewers that Ramos had been nominated by his co-workers in 2005 for Border Patrol Agent of the Year. Yet they never mentioned that he had been arrested two times for domestic violence, in 1996 and 2002, and suspended from the Border Patrol, in 2003, for not reporting what had happened. (The charges were dropped, but Ramos was required to take a court-mandated anger management class.) More frustrating, he said, were the allegations that he was eager to lock up Border Patrol agents for doing their jobs. “Agents have shot their weapons at least fourteen times in the El Paso sector since I’ve been U.S. attorney,” Sutton said. “On three occasions, they killed the suspect. Every time, the agents came forward and explained why they had used deadly force. And in every instance—except this one—it was ruled justifiable.”

Some thoughts on all of this:

1) There is a lot of emotion on this issue coming from the defenders of the shooters. Illegal immigration. Drugs. Wanting to believe in those who are sworn to protect the law. None of these are relevant to the facts in the case. And some of this is starting to sound a tad Grassy Knollish (bladed stance! bladed stance!)

2) Was the sentence too stiff? Yes. But that was what the statute dictated, and it is common for prosecutors to throw in the max in order to encourage the defense to plea bargain. They were offered to have everything but obstruction tossed out. They chose to throw the dice, and lost.

3) They lied. They filed false reports. They removed evidence. They never mentioned a ‘shiny object’ until after they were arrested.

They had zero credibility. And BTW, they already lost on appeal.

4) I have seen no actual evidence that this was a political prosecution, that the US Attorney was taking marching orders from Mexico, or that anyone actually wanted anything except for this case to go away. And the whole agents v. drug dealer credibility test misses the fact that you also have to disbelieve four other BP agants, the U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department on the say-so of Lou Dobbs and WND. Paging Fox Mulder…

And Sutton in particular doesn’t deserve the mindless abuse he’s had to endure.

5) Ramos got a raw deal, having a worthless menace for a partner, and covering for him. I’m sure that he thought that Compean was in danger when he fired (one shot, one hit as opposed to Compean who couldn’t hit a barn with a bazooka). I would have no problem with commutation (as opposed to pardon) in his case.

6) Yes, those are just excerpts. It’s longer, but still worth the time if you’re interested.

7) And we can agree to disagree. At least I can.