More than two years after they were sentenced, former Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean still sit in federal prison for their actions in attempting to apprehend a drug runner who was smuggling 743 pounds of marijuana valued at $1.2 million from Mexico into the United States.
To protect them from prison gangs eager to attack law enforcement officers, the Bureau of Prisons keeps the two agents separate from the general prison population. Today, Ramos and Compean sit in solitary cells in Phoenix, and Elkton, Ohio, respectively, hundreds of miles from their homes and families in Texas.
Because of the excesses of the prosecution against them, they will continue to sit alone in those cells for another decade. That is unless President Bush commutes their unjust sentences. In his remaining days as President, I ask President Bush to show mercy and use his clemency power to give back Agents Ramos and Compean the next 10 years of their lives.
Along with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, I have written two letters to the President urging commutation—and have spoken publicly many more times on this injustice.
Law enforcement officers hold a special place in our society. Those with authority to investigate and incarcerate others possess enormous power. But, like their fellow citizens, law enforcement officers must be held accountable when they act outside the law—and must be treated no better and no worse if prosecuted for a crime. While a jury of their peers found that Ramos and Compean exceeded the authority entrusted to them, I have reached the conclusion as a Senator, a former judge, and a citizen, that the loss of their jobs and the prison time they have already served has been more than enough punishment.
This is a case of prosecutorial overreaching.
For starters, prosecutors hid from the jury the full criminal character of the drug smuggler, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, who was also the government’s key witness. The jury was kept from hearing one of the most critical pieces of information regarding the case—that Aldrete-Davila was running drugs at the time of his altercation with the border agents. Nor did the jury hear that after he was granted immunity to testify against the agents, Aldrete-Davila breached his agreement and continued to smuggle drugs into this country. Finally, the jury was told neither that Aldrete-Davila’s friends had organized a “hunting party” to shoot border agents in revenge for his injuries, nor that Aldrete-Davila had refused to help law enforcement identify and stop these vigilantes. Instead of hearing this evidence, the jury was told by the prosecutor in closing statements that Aldrete-Davila had run from the border agents simply because he wanted to go home. Several jurors have since come forward to state that if they had been told about the excluded evidence, they would have changed their verdict.
What’s more, long before their trial, Ramos and Compean suffered unfair treatment by federal prosecutors, who made an unprecedented move to charge Ramos and Compean with a federal gun crime that was never intended to be used against law enforcement officers. As a result, the penalty levied on these men was grossly excessive.
Ramos and Compean were the first, and so far are the only, law enforcement agents to be charged under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) for actions taken in the regular course of their duties. That statute provides a mandatory minimum of 10 years in jail for anyone who fires a gun while “during and in relation to any crime of violence.”
The dangerous result of prosecutors reading this statute liberally to prosecute law enforcement officers is obvious. Our law enforcement officers—whose chief responsibility is to protect and serve—carry guns and are sometimes required to use them as part of their job. The statute used to prosecute Ramos and Compean was originally intended as a punishment enhancement to deter individuals from dealing drugs and engaging in violent crimes. Until the Ramos and Compean case, prosecutors understood this distinction—practicing their discretion accordingly and not charging it against law enforcement acting in the regular course of their duties.
If Ramos and Compean had been prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for every charge against them except for the 10-year mandatory minimum gun charge, they would both be free men by the end of this year. Because of prosecutors’ use of this unprecedented and unjust charge, that day of freedom is still a decade away.
Even U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, who supervised the prosecution, has now conceded that concerns about the fairness of the sentence are legitimate. Let us hope that President Bush will hear these concerns and right the wrongs against Ramos and Compean.