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House moves to free border agents imprisoned in smuggler's shooting

July 27, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a reaction to a case that has inflamed the debate over illegal immigration, the House has taken the unusual step of trying to free two former Border Patrol agents imprisoned for shooting a fleeing drug smuggler.

The House decided by a voice vote late Wednesday to prohibit the use of any federal money to keep the two men in prison.

"I have never seen a level of outrage among my constituents and really across the country on any issue as there has been on this issue," Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) said in urging passage of the amendment to the annual Justice Department appropriations bill.

The measure is a long way from becoming law. The Senate has yet to act on it, and it must get past President Bush's veto pen.

The former agents, Ignacio "Nacho" Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, were sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively, after being found guilty of offenses that included violating the wounded smuggler's civil rights in the February 2005 shooting near El Paso.

The case has drawn intense interest on Capitol Hill among lawmakers who say it highlights the difficulties of securing the border.

"Our federal government had the choice to prosecute two border agents [who] violated policy or a drug dealer bringing in a million dollars' worth of drugs," Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), a former judge who sponsored the amendment, said during the debate.

"Now, you would think that public policy would say we would go after drug dealers. But no, our federal prosecutors went after the border agents."

Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) countered: "Keep in mind that it is a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney that prosecuted these Border Patrol officers, and it was a jury of a U.S. citizens who rendered a verdict based upon the U.S. law and based upon the evidence of U.S. law."

The case has generated outrage, especially among conservatives, who have complained about Bush's decision to commute the prison sentence of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, but not the sentences of the former agents.

Bush noted recently that the agents' prosecutor was "a dear friend" and "a fair guy," and the agents "were convicted by a jury of their peers after listening to the facts."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last week called for Bush to commute the former agents' sentences. But she appeared cool to the House action.

"I take a dim view of canceling money as a way of handling this situation," she said in a statement.

"I think it sets an unseemly and potentially difficult scenario, whereby you set a precedent, anytime you don't like a sentence, you're going to cancel the funds for the individual. I think that's not the way to do it."

Federal prosecutors said that the agents fired 15 shots at an unarmed man as he ran away and that they tried to cover up their actions.

Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said: "Legislation that imposes selective funding restrictions that would prevent the executive branch from enforcing duly enacted laws, particularly where the legislation would have the practical effect of commuting or nullifying a conviction or sentence entered by a court under those laws, raises serious questions of improper interference."

The amendment was co-sponsored by Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), both of whom are seeking their party's presidential nomination.

"We have begged the president to please become involved with this, please pardon, please commute," Tancredo said. "He has chosen not to. This is the only option we have open to us."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) said: "The Ramos and Compean prosecution has been the greatest miscarriage of justice in my 30 years in Washington, D.C., and, believe me, I have seen a lot."

But in a sign that the amendment faces trouble, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the subcommittee that writes the Justice Department spending bill, opposed it, saying he did not think Congress was the right forum to address the controversy. He will play a key role in writing the final measure.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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