By Dan Eggen and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"Obviously, we're ecstatic for the agents and their families," Bonner said. "But at the same time, quite frankly, we wonder why it took so long for the president to do the right thing. . . . The more you find out about this case, the more you wonder why it went to court in the first place."
The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney was still reviewing the men's applications for shorter sentences and had not yet made a formal recommendation when the White House acted, according to a department source.
Bush issued his last pardons on Dec. 23, when he forgave the crimes of 19 people convicted of charges including embezzlement and drug distribution. But an embarrassed White House announced the next day that Bush was rescinding a pardon for Brooklyn real estate developer Isaac Robert Toussie after learning about GOP political contributions from Toussie's father and other details about the case.
Margaret Love, a former Justice Department pardon attorney who represented several low-profile clients seeking clemency, argued that the meager number of awards during the Bush administration signals the need "for a top-to-bottom review of the clemency system."
"The system is profoundly broken," she said, adding, "All I can say is, 'Where is the outrage?' "
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.