Senate Panel Probes Border Shooting Case
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Senate Judiciary Committee today looked into a big issue in the conservative blogosphere and on talk radio - the conviction and jailing of two U.S. Border Patrol agents who shot an unarmed drug smuggler in Texas some two and a half years ago. Conservatives are outraged over the sentences handed down to the two border agents. One is serving 11 years, the other 12 years, while the drug smuggler was given immunity.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: To hear California Republican Dana Rohrabacher tell it, this is a straightforward case of right and wrong, with government prosecutors in the wrong.
Representative DANA ROHRABACHER (Republican, California): The whole episode stinks to high heaven. Two of America's brave Border Patrol defenders have had their lives and the lives of their family - and their families are here with us today - destroyed by what I see as an elitist, arrogant and overreaching prosecutor.
NAYLOR: Rohrabacher was among a handful of conservative Republicans who testified and raised questions during the three-hour-long hearing. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas brought up the recent defeat of immigration legislation, which he said was due to the lack of trust the government will enforce the law.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I think the public's interest in the case of Border Patrol Agent Ramos and Border Patrol Agent Compean is symptomatic of that distrust, because the public sees two Border Patrol agents serving long prison sentences while an admitted drug dealer goes free.
NAYLOR: The Border Patrol agents, Jose Alonzo Compean and Ignacio Ramos, were in pursuit of the drug dealer east of El Paso in February 2005. The dealer, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, jumped from his van and ran hoping to reach the border with Mexico. Some 15 shots were fired. Davila was wounded in the buttocks. The two officers never reported the shooting to their superiors as required. Compean picked up his spent shell casings.
Federal prosecutors brought a litany of charges against the agents. The most serious - using their firearms in a crime - resulted in mandatory 10-year sentences. The U.S. attorney for West Texas, Johnny Sutton, told senators the agents refused to plea to lesser charges and they were hardly the heroes their supporters claim.
Mr. JOHNNY SUTTON (U.S. Attorney, Western District, Texas): Agents Compean and Ramos crossed the line. They are not heroes. They deliberately shot an unarmed man in the back without justification, destroyed evidence to cover it up and lied about it.
NAYLOR: The agents' supporter say at worst, they were guilty of administrative violations that should have resulted in suspensions, not jail time. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma posts a question to Sutton.
Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Why is it wrong for a Border Patrol agent who has stopped a van that's full of drugs and the guy is running? Why is it wrong for him to shoot him after they told him to stop? Why is that wrong?
NAYLOR: Sutton replied there were very good reasons not to shoot an unarmed fleeing suspect.
Mr. SUTTON: The first answer is that the Supreme Court of the United States says it's illegal to do that. If somebody is not causing you fear, you can't just shoot him because you're trying to stop him or you're angry at him or you want to teach him a lesson.
NAYLOR: Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who called the hearing and was the only Democrat present amidst several conservative Republicans, said Sutton was guilty of prosecutorial overreach. Conservatives helped to pressure President Bush to commute the two agents' sentences. Republican Congressman Rohrabacher said the Bush administration will, quote, "let Scooter Libby go, but these two defenders of our border have to go in solitary confinement."
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.
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