Bush Commutes Sentences of Ex-Agents
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Reserving his last acts of clemency for his final full day in office, President Bush yesterday commuted the sentences of two former U.S. Border Patrol agents whose convictions in 2006 for shooting a Mexican drug dealer sparked a passionate debate over the rights of illegal immigrants.
The prosecutions of Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio Ramos became a cause celebre for many conservatives, who argued that the pair were just doing their jobs in trying to apprehend a dangerous illegal immigrant. The victim, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, admitted smuggling several hundred pounds of marijuana on the day he was shot.
The Justice Department strongly defended the prosecution, noting that Davila was unarmed and shot in the buttocks while fleeing and that the two agents tried to cover up their actions with a false report of the incident. Their sentences were upheld last year by a federal appeals court.
Administration officials said Bush believed the verdicts in the case were just, but thought that the sentences were excessive. Compean had been sentenced to 12 years in prison, and Ramos, 11 years. The commutation means the pair will walk out of federal prison March 20 after serving 26 months each, officials said.
Robert T. Baskett, an attorney for Compean, said in an interview that "everybody associated with this is as happy as they can be." He noted that all but two members of the Texas legislature had recently sent Bush a letter seeking action in the guards' case. "A lot of people put in a lot of work," Baskett said.
David L. Botsford, an attorney for Ramos, said he appreciates "the president's compassionate act . . . and his ending the nightmare of the Ramos family."
The commutations amounted to the only significant public move by Bush since he gave a brief farewell address to the nation Thursday night. After a weekend at Camp David and a rare private dinner Sunday night, Bush spent yesterday morning saying goodbye by telephone to more than a dozen prominent world leaders, the White House said.
Bush will come back into the public eye this morning to welcome President-elect Barack Obama to the White House before his noon inauguration. After that, Bush will depart for a welcome-home rally in Midland, Tex., followed by a night at the family ranch in Crawford as a private citizen.
A president has the unfettered power to shorten, or commute, a sentence or to forgive a crime entirely through a pardon. But Bush has exercised his clemency power sparingly, granting 189 pardons and 11 commutations.
President Bill Clinton, by contrast, granted 396 pardons and 61 commutations in eight years, including dozens on his last day in office that prompted an enduring political scandal. President George H.W. Bush issued a relatively modest 77 pardons during his four years in office, though that included Caspar Weinberger and other prominent officials connected to the Iran-contra scandal.
Officials familiar with the process said Bush does not plan additional acts of clemency before leaving office today. A long list of prominent felons applied for pardons or other relief, including junk-bond king Michael Milken, former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards (D), and former GOP congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Many Democrats also feared that Bush might pardon intelligence officials involved in alleged torture or former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who already received a commutation of his 30-month sentence for perjury and obstruction crimes.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, praised the president's decision on the two guards. The council had been lobbying for more than two years that the guards were wrongfully prosecuted and that they had acted reasonably in the course of their employment.