Monday, August 18, 2008
By Graeme Zielinski - SAEN
Joe Loya, father-in-law of former Border Patrol agent Ignacio Ramos, slipped into the shade outside the El Paso federal courthouse last week, lamenting the absence of a Lou Dobbs producer while a volunteer “Minuteman” from California captured Loya on a digital recorder for a Web site.
A few yards away, Mexican drug smuggler Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, 27, shackled and just sentenced to 114 months in prison, was soon to be led into a white bus emblazoned with the U.S. Marshals Service insignia.
Hundreds of miles away, Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean sat incarcerated, in Phoenix and in Elkton, Ohio, respectively, each serving more than a decade for a 2005 shooting in the dust of the Mexican border. The two former Border Patrol agents shot a fleeing and unarmed Aldrete in the buttocks during a botched drug run on the border near El Paso.
The past few weeks have seen dramatic developments in the cases of Ramos and Compean, pushing the story back onto front pages and breathing new energy into movements — inflamed by the roiling debate over drugs and immigration from Mexico — to see them freed.
As the options for Ramos and Compean become more limited, there is still a flurry of activity on their behalf, fired by a recent appellate ruling and Aldrete's conviction.
Supporters continue to raise money for the former agents' legal defense and their young families. Congressional attempts are under way to retroactively change gun laws in such a way that would see Ramos and Compean sprung.
Pleas for a pardon or commutation for Ramos and Compean from President Bush are sharpening. And anti-immigration activists, who see in Ramos and Compean metaphors for what's wrong on the Mexican border, are pressing their public excoriation of U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, for whom the case has become a public relations headache.
“I think, at this point, you'd have to say the hill gets a lot steeper to climb,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a supporter of the agents who has written to Bush seeking commutations.
David Armendariz, a San Antonio immigration lawyer, said the agents' supporters are at a point of desperation.
“It's the end of the road for them,” he said. “They had their day in court. They had their due process of law, the same due process that they tried to deprive a person who they shot in the back.”
On July 28, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shot down arguments seeking to overturn the jury convictions of the former agents for shooting Aldrete and then seeking to cover it up.
The panel in strong language denied the central points of the appeals, that jurors had wrongly been kept from information about Aldrete and that the prosecution had improperly applied a gun statute with mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years.
The legal hurdles for Ramos and Compean grew even higher with the 5th Circuit ruling. The ruling might have cracked open some avenues for appeal, but deferred to the judgment of the jury in the case that the men wrongfully pursued and shot at Aldrete, and that Aldrete, though hauling hundreds of pounds of marijuana, posed no threat to the men.
Responding to an argument about the application of a gun statute, E. Grady Jolly wrote for the three-judge panel that “whether the defendants were justified in shooting Aldrete Davila is an issue no longer in play after the jury verdict that rejected the defendants' version of the facts.”
The appellate lawyers for both Ramos and Compean have filed motions for a re-hearing, an unusual action in any case, and for their arguments to be heard by the judges of the entire circuit, a move rarely granted following so forceful a decision.
David L. Botsford, a lawyer for Ramos, was hopeful, saying, “It ain't over yet.”
“I don't have a crystal ball, but there are some serious issues that justify re-hearing,” he said.
So far as the possibility of commutations go, a Justice Department spokesman said Aug. 8 that neither former agent had formally applied for clemency. It's not clear that either yet would even be eligible under current rules, especially since their appeals are still pending.
That hasn't stopped several members of Congress, including Cornyn, from pressing the case for clemency.
Asked July 30 about a statement from Cornyn that President Bush should “step forward and commute their sentences,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino demurred, and directed reporters to the 5th Circuit decision.
Cornyn, in an Aug. 8 interview, said, “It looks increasingly like the president's the only one constitutionally to be able to do something about it.”
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), part of a group of congressmen who have pressed the case for Ramos and Compean, ascribed deeper motives to Bush, speculating that the lack of action had to do with the administration's deference to trade goals with Mexico.
“I don't know that for a fact. It's hard to get them to respond to anything regarding these two Border Patrol agents,” said Jones, who also said he was working to have another Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter and put Sutton under oath again.
Sutton, whose office is near the lead in the country in drug and immigration convictions, has repeatedly rejected the characterizations of the agents as innocents or his office's prosecution as vindictive.
Sutton has been caricatured as “Johnny Satan” on Web sites and been the subject of other vituperative remarks, but, in an interview last week, he again defended the case.
“This case is not about me or my prosecutors,” he said. “This case is about the rule of law ... We had to follow the facts where they led.”
Last week, a chastened Aldrete himself returned to the courtroom where he had testified against the agents.
Except this time, he was there to be sentenced for being the hub of a cross-border drug-running operation, delivering hundreds of pounds of marijuana, even after the gunshot that fragmented and tore through his urethra in February 2005.
Movement to free agents
Back in El Paso last week, Loya, father of Monica Ramos, Ignacio Ramos' 36-year-old wife and a driving force within a media-savvy campaign, sighed when asked to predict the outcome for his central goal, to see his son-in-law and a fellow agent freed.
“I don't know where this is going to go,” Loya said, maneuvering toward a battery of cameras with the “Minuteman” from the vigilante group against illegal immigration in tow.
As for attitudes within the conservative circles that have kept the story alive and Sutton in their crosshairs, Houston radio talk show host and steakhouse proprietor Edd Hendee answered a question about whether or not it still resonated with an anecdote.
After the 5th Circuit ruling, he put out appeals for donations to the Ramos and Compean families, to cover legal and living expenses. The response?
“It's going to take us the better part of a month to two months, with two people working around the clock... to handle opening the letters and counting the checks,” he said.
With more than $206,000 raised as of Aug. 8, Hendee said he's had to set aside space in his steakhouse's administrative offices for the stacks of checks.
But in El Paso, advocacy for Ramos and Compean falls on deaf ears because of the large percentage of Mexican immigrants in town, said Loya, an insurance agent.
“People just don't want to get behind us for some kind of fear, because there's so much hate for the Border Patrol in El Paso,” he said.
Loya said he was going to continue to press for Ramos' release, chiefly because of his three grandchildren. The day of the Aldrete sentencing, one celebrated his 11th birthday.
“After he opened his gifts, he said to me, ‘I still didn't get what I want,'” Loya said.