WASHINGTON — In one of his final acts in office, President Bush on Monday commuted the controversial prison terms of two former U.S. Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting an unarmed Mexican drug smuggler who fled across the Rio Grande, away from a van loaded with 743 pounds of marijuana.
The clemencies were granted without input from the Justice Department, one of several controversial cases in which the White House did not go through the standard review, according to current and former Justice Department officials.
Bush's grants of clemency for Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio "Nacho" Ramos were prompted by sustained pressure from Republican lawmakers -- along with some Democrats -- in California, Texas and other border states.
The former agents' case had been a cause celebre among advocates of a more hard-line approach to securing the border against illegal immigration. Lawmakers and conservative groups had aggressively pushed for pardons for the two men.
Compean and Ramos were convicted of shooting admitted drug smuggler Osvaldo Aldrete Davila in the buttocks as he fled a van loaded with marijuana in 2005. They testified at their trial that they thought Aldrete Davila was armed and that they had shot him in self-defense. But the prosecution said there was no evidence linking Davila to the van, that the agents had not reported the shooting and that they tossed their shotgun casings into the Rio Grande to hide the evidence.
The agents were found guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon, violating Aldrete Davila's civil rights and defacing a crime scene.
Much of the evidence against the agents came from Aldrete Davila, who was granted immunity. He has suffered lasting effects from his injury.
The Justice Department announced the commutations in a brief statement that included no explanation, as is traditional in such executive orders. The White House had no comment.
Bush could have pardoned Compean and Ramos, which essentially would have wiped away their convictions. By commuting their prison terms, he left their convictions intact.
Bush did not grant clemency to some other high-profile petitioners -- including convicted junk-bond financier Michael Milken; former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who was convicted of fraud and racketeering in 2006; John Walker Lindh, the Marin County teenager who went to Afghanistan and fought with the Taliban; and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), who in 2005 pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion, among other violations.
Bush also did not pardon Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstructing justice in the Valerie Plame-CIA leak investigation. Last year, he commuted Libby's 30-month sentence before Libby served any prison time.
Bush, who has absolute power under the Constitution to grant pardons and reprieves, has used that authority sparingly.
Pardon experts say he has granted fewer than 250 of the 10,000 petitions filed in the last eight years, a far lower rate than President Clinton and some other White House occupants.
There had been speculation in recent months that Bush might issue a blanket "preemptive pardon" to officials involved in the U.S.-led global war on terrorism -- including CIA agents who used coercive techniques such as waterboarding of suspected terrorists and lawyers who approved warrantless domestic spying methods that circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Some administration officials and pardon experts speculated that Bush did not issue a preemptive pardon because Barack Obama has indicated that, as president, he will not seek to "criminalize" the past behavior of intelligence and law enforcement officials -- preferring instead to change U.S. policy to ban such activities in the future.
Bush has until just before Obama's swearing-in at noon EST today to issue further grants of clemency, but a Justice Department official said there was no indication any others were forthcoming.
Compean and Ramos were sentenced to 12 and 11 years in prison, respectively. They were fired after their convictions.
A judge also sentenced the former agents to three years of supervised release following their prison terms and fined them $2,000 each. According to the Justice Department, Bush's grants of clemency mean that the men's prison sentences will "expire" on March 20, leaving intact their supervised release and fines.
Lawmakers who supported Compean and Ramos argued that their prosecution was politically motivated and had demoralized the nation's Border Patrol agents, making them afraid to do their jobs.
On Monday, many in Congress hailed Bush's decision.
"A gross miscarriage of justice has finally been righted," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who spoke to Bush about the agents.
But one former Justice Department official decried the commutations.
"There was obstruction of justice; they shot a man in the back," said the former official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of criticizing the president. "I am speechless. These are terrible clemency cases."
Since the two men were incarcerated in January 2007, Ramos has been assaulted and both have been placed in solitary confinement "because of the danger they face as a result of their law enforcement backgrounds," Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas wrote in a letter to Bush last week asking for clemency.
Critics of tough immigration policies have argued that the prison sentences were justified.
A lawyer for Aldrete Davila, Walter Boyaki, has commended federal prosecutors for going through with a politically unpopular case, saying that if the agents had not been punished, it would have "put a bull's-eye on every illegal" immigrant.
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.