As the Bush era comes to a close, the list of last minute pardon requests are growing. Perhaps the loudest demand for pardon comes (mostly) from Conservatives who are angry that President Bush has not acted to pardon two Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean. Those who demand the pardon claim that the agents were railroaded by an “overzealous” U.S. Attorney for “just doing their jobs” when the agents fired 15 shots, one of which hit a fleeing “drug smuggling illegal immigrant” Aldrete-Davila in the buttocks. If you Google “Ramos and Compean” you will find an endless number of articles which make some variation of this argument.
If this were a case of two Border Patrol Agents “just doing their jobs” acting in self defense, then I too would be demanding a pardon for these men. Inconvenient facts which are left out of almost all of these articles point to exactly why Ramos and Compean should NOT be pardoned. A January 29, 2007 article written by Andrew McCarthy for The National Review (not what I would consider a left-leaning or open borders type publication) offers a compelling counterpoint challenging the heroic and mythical image being bandied about of the two Border Patrol Agents:
The preponderance of the evidence established that Aldrete-Davila was unarmed. Besides Compean and Ramos, there were several other agents on the scene. None of them believed Aldrete-Davila posed a threat to their safety; none, other than the two defendants drew their weapons; and Compean and Ramos neither took cover nor alerted their fellow agents to do so.
More to the point, Compean admitted to investigators early on that the smuggler had raised his hands, palms open, in an attempt to surrender. This jibed not only with Aldrete-Davila’s account but with that of another Border Patrol agent. Compean opted not to take surrender, not to place the smuggler under arrest so he could be prosecuted.
On that score, for those over-heatedly analogizing the border to a battlefield, it is worth noting that even under the law of war, quarter must be given when it is sought. Compean, to the contrary, tried to strike Aldrete-Davila with the butt of his shotgun. But it turns out the agent was as hapless as he was malevolent. In the assault, he succeeded only in losing his own balance. The smuggler, naturally, took off again, whereupon Compean unleashed an incompetent fuselage — missing Aldrete-Davila with all fourteen shots.
It was only after the surrender attempt that Ramos opened fire as the unarmed smuggler neared the border. Defending his decision to bring the case, U.S. attorney Sutton later explained: “Border Patrol training allows for the use of deadly force when an agent reasonably fears imminent bodily injury or death. An agent is not permitted to shoot an unarmed suspect who is running away.” The fact that Aldrete-Davila was a drug-dealer — something the agents may have suspected but had not yet confirmed at the time they were shooting at him — did not justify the responsive use of potentially deadly force under standard law-enforcement rules of engagement.
Even Ramos and Compean’s supporters acknowledge that the agents shot at a fleeing suspect rather than a suspect trying to cause injury or death. Do they really want to make every law enforcement officer in the country judge, jury, and executioner and grant the right to use lethal force against a fleeing supect*? After all, forcing law enforcement to obey the law makes their jobs “more difficult”!
McCarthy continues to perhaps the most damning part of Ramos and Compean’s actions – the cover-up:
Once Aldrete-Davila was down from Ramos’s shot to the backside, they decided, for a second time, not to grab him so he could face justice for his crimes. As they well knew, an arrest at that point — after 15 shots at a fleeing, unarmed man who had tried to surrender — would have shone a spotlight on their performance. So instead, they exacerbated the already shameful display.
Instead of arresting the wounded smuggler, they put their guns away and left him behind. But not before trying to conceal the improper discharge of their firearms. Compean picked up and hid his shell-casings rather than leaving the scene intact for investigators. Both agents filed false reports, failing to record the firing of their weapons though they were well aware of regulations requiring that they do so. Because the “heroes” put covering their tracks ahead of doing their duty, Aldrete-Davila was eventually able to limp off to a waiting car and escape into Mexico.
Whaaaat? But I thought this “drug smuggling illegal immigrant” was a threat to national security? If the agents’ actions were justified, why would they not arrest the suspect and why would they feel the need to cover-up their actions? Were they afraid that the “overzealous” Sutton had an axe to grind against the Border Patrol?
Toward the beginning of his article, McCarthy points out that Sutton had an impressive record of prosecuting coyotes and drug smugglers and supporting the efforts of the Border Patrol. There have even been other cases on Sutton’s watch where agents used lethal force which resulted in fatalities. Because these agents responded appropriately in these cases – using deadly force when there were legitimate threats to the lives of others on the part of the suspects, Sutton’s office did not pursue charges.
On January 17, 2007, Sutton published a press release on official U.S. Department of Justice Letterhead in an attempt to separate “Myth vs. Reality” regarding this case. Within this document contains perhaps the best argument for why the president should not pardon these men:
These agents were found guilty by a unanimous jury in a United States District Court after a trial that lasted more than two and a half weeks.
The two agents were represented by experienced and aggressive trial attorneys, both of whom vigorously challenged the Government’s evidence through cross examination.
Both agents told their stories from the witness stand and had full opportunities to explain their version of events and to offer their own evidence. The jury heard everything including the defendants’ claims of self defense. The problem for Agents Compean and Ramos is that the jury did not believe their stories because they were not true.
Being government agents, Ramos and Compean probably received a better legal defense than the average criminal defendant. They had their day in court and they lost. Their legal team appealed the convictions and they lost again. This is hardly the miscarriage of justice that the pro pardon people would have us believe; this is an example of the system actually working the way it’s supposed to!
Ramos and Compean’s supporters do have at least a couple of somewhat legitimate gripes though. One being the length of the sentences (11 and 12 years) and the other being use of testimony on the part of a criminal who has something to gain (in this case, Aldrete-Davila himself). But these complaints should not be directed at Sutton or the trial judge.
The blame for the length of the sentence belongs properly to the mandatory minimum sentencing law passed by congress which requires a ten year sentence for unlawful discharge of a firearm while committing a crime (this ten year sentence is in addition to whatever other crimes the defendant is convicted of). While I believe that the sentences are appropriate in this case, I am opposed to mandatory minimum sentencing laws on principle. Judges should have the discretion to decide the appropriate punishment not a one-size-fits-all penalty regardless of any unique circumstances in a unique event.
And allowing Aldrete-Dalvia to testify against Ramos and Compean with full immunity? This is standard operating procedure. Prosecutors use informants who have a motive to testify against defendants every day in this country. Why should we be surprised that Sutton would use Aldrete-Dalvia as his star witness? If this approach is appropriate for the average defendant then it is certainly appropriate when those sworn to serve and protect abuse the public’s trust.
But don’t expect Conservatives to start demanding a repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws nor expect them to consider criminal justice reform. To them this case is not about two rogue law enforcement agents but about immigration and drug policy. The facts do not matter because the guys with the badges are always the good guys and their judgment is better than due process of law.
Certainly there are many miscarriages of justice which could be rectified with a presidential pardon (*cough* *cough* Cory Maye *cough* *cough*) but the case of Ramos and Compean is not such a case…no matter where one stands on immigration and drug policy. Hopefully neither President Bush nor President-Elect Barack Obama will give in to the mindless demands of this misguided and vocal mob.
Quincy pointed out that the president cannot pardon individuals who have been convicted of crimes in violation of state or local laws but only federal laws. Cory Maye was found guilty under Mississippi law, not federal law. My understanding has always been that the president could pardon anyone for committing any crime in the U.S.
A careful reading of Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, however; seems to say otherwise:
[The president] shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
I also decided to do some additional research on the topic of presidential pardons to determine if the phrase “against the United States” applied to state and local law. HowStuffWorks? has a very informative article which explains how presidential pardons work. In chapter 5 “What a Pardon Does Not Do” I found my answer:
One limitation is that a pardon cannot be issued for a crime that has not yet been committed. Pardons also don’t affect civil cases, or state or local cases. Pardons are meant to dismiss sentences stemming from affronts to the United States through the breaking of laws.
Unfortunately, this means that Quincy is right: the president couldn’t pardon Cory Maye even if he wanted to.
* Think about it: if you surrendered to law enforcement and one of the officers try to hit you with the butt of a shotgun, do you think you might try to run away?