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Ignore the Ramos & Compean Fan Club

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- In the Old West, outlaw gangs would sometimes try to sidestep the criminal justice system by busting someone out of jail. Today, that role is being taken up by some members of Congress.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing into the case of ex-Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean. The two men were convicted last year of shooting and wounding Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, an unarmed drug smuggler, along the U.S.-Mexican border and then covering it up by destroying evidence and falsifying reports. Ramos and Compean were sentenced to 11 and 12 years respectively.

That's too long a stretch in the opinion of Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. After the hearing, they sent a letter to Bush asking him to commute the sentences.

Bush should afford the request the consideration it deserves, all three seconds worth. Then he should crumple up the letter. When will Congress learn that presidential pardons and other forms of clemency are matters for the executive branch?

Last week, at a town hall-style forum in Nashville, Bush was asked if he would pardon Ramos and Compean. The president refused to make such a promise and instead described as "a dear friend" and "an even-handed guy" U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose office tried this case and who hasn't had a moment's peace since. Then Bush reiterated, as he has done on previous occasions, that "these men were convicted by a jury of their peers" and that "people need to look at the facts."

The facts of the case haven't changed. On Feb. 17, 2005, Ramos and Compean were on patrol on the U.S.-Mexico border near Fabens, Texas, when they spotted a suspicious van. When they approached, they discovered Aldrete-Davila, who began running toward the Mexican side of the border. The agents opened fire.

Nor has there been any change in the law under which Ramos and Compean were tried, convicted and sentenced. It's still a crime for officers to shoot an unarmed suspect and then lie about it.

In fact, arguably, the only thing that has changed since the ex-agents began serving their sentences six months ago is the political climate. Many of those who want to curb illegal immigration feel empowered now that they have had a hand in defeating immigration reform, and they want to flex those muscles by trying to get elected officeholders to spring Ramos and Compean.

Ironically, these are the same folks who talk about the rule of law and how we mustn't go around rewarding lawbreakers. Their allies include politicians such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a quixotic GOP presidential candidate who has introduced legislation calling for a pardon of Ramos and Compean. Hunter opposed what he called "amnesty" for 12 million illegal immigrants, yet he wants amnesty for two former Border Patrol agents.

It makes you wonder, is Hunter the hard-liner going soft? Or is it just that his principles aren't as firm as he claims them to be?

This is not the first time that the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has shown his sensitive side. When his buddy and fellow Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- or, as he is now known, federal inmate No. 94405-198 -- came up for sentencing, Hunter wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Larry Burns asking for leniency.

Cunningham collected $2.4 million in homes, yachts, antiques and other bribes. Hunter's plea notwithstanding, the former congressman was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.

Hunter hopes he'll have better luck in seeking clemency for Ramos and Compean. He and other champions of the former agents always seem to steer the conversation toward Aldrete-Davila -- a bad actor who received immunity in exchange for testifying against the agents, and was even given a government-issued "humanitarian pass" to cross the border for medical treatment. According to Drug Enforcement Administration documents, Aldrete-Davila allegedly used the pass to bring in more drugs.

Shocking. We already knew this guy was slime. Here's the really sad part: The ex-agents took the stand in their own defense, and yet the jury that convicted them apparently found their testimony to be less credible than that of the drug dealer.

Bet you won't hear that from the members of the Ramos and Compean Fan Club. That's why they have no credibility. And members of Congress who buy into their narrative -- of hero agents who were railroaded into prison -- risk their credibility as well.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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 Ruben Navarrette
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