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May 14, 2007 - Los Angeles Times (CA)

Border Case Puts U.S. Attorney On Defensive

Johnny Sutton Prosecuted A Pair Of Agents Who Shot A Fleeing Mexican Smuggler. Conservatives Are Up In Arms

By Richard A. Serrano, Times Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON -- Internet cartoons show him with horns and the word "TRAITOR" branded on his forehead. Conservative talk radio derides him as "Johnny Satan." At least two Republican congressmen, normally staunch defenders of the Bush administration, have castigated him on the House floor.

If the White House and Justice Department had added Johnny Sutton to the list of federal prosecutors to be fired, his ouster probably would not have raised an eyebrow among Democrats, and it would have pleased much of the president's conservative base.

Sutton is the U.S. attorney in west Texas. Based in San Antonio, his border district reaches to El Paso. For five years he has been the top federal lawman in one of the nation's busiest regions, a job he long dreamed of having. It also is one he secured with deep ties to President Bush and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, going back to their time in state government in Austin.

The uproar is over his prosecution of two U.S. Border Patrol agents for the February 2005 shooting of a fleeing Mexican drug smuggler near El Paso, a shooting the agents tried to cover up. Last year, Sutton's office won convictions against Agents Ignacio "Nacho" Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean.

Each was a line officer in what many people consider a hopeless chore: trying to hold back a deluge of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Each is a father of three. And each was sentenced to more than a decade in prison: Ramos to 11 years, Compean to 12.

"This was a serious, serious crime," Sutton said Thursday on a conservative radio program in Houston, trying again to calm the anger on the political right. "It is a serious crime when law enforcement officers shoot at somebody, shoot him in the back as he's running away, and then cover up the crime."

The agents were sentenced in October, just as the White House and Justice Department were preparing plans to fire eight other federal prosecutors, and the parallel events have left normally strong Bush supporters disappointed that Sutton was not terminated too.

"Johnny Sutton has lied to the American people," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntingon Beach) proclaimed in a House floor speech in March. "Sutton prosecuted the good guys and gave immunity to the bad guys."

T.J. Bonner, head of the union that represents most of the Border Patrol agents, was more forceful in a recent interview. "Johnny Sutton acts like he's America's best friend," Bonner said. "He should be America's Most Wanted."

Sutton, who did not return phone calls for this article, runs a huge district of 93,000 square miles, including 660 miles of the border with Mexico. His staff of 260 employees, including 118 assistant prosecutors, handles federal cases in 68 Texas counties and three of the state's largest cities, San Antonio, El Paso and Austin.

Sutton heads the Attorney General's Advisory Committee, which helps set policies and goals devised by Washington and the 93 U.S. attorneys' offices nationwide, and he often was notified by Washington about the planned firings.

For instance, D. Kyle Sampson, who was chief of staff to Gonzales, worried that the dismissed prosecutors might appeal to Sutton for help in keeping their jobs. So in November, Sampson sent Sutton a list of specific responses he should give them on why they had to go. If they called and asked, "Why me?," he was to tell them it was to "give someone else the chance to serve in your district." (It is unclear whether any did appeal to him.)

Two days before the Dec. 7 firings, Sampson advised that Sutton should be immediately notified so he was "not caught unawares." Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul McNulty agreed to "talk to Johnny."

A week after the firings, Sampson sent e-mails to top Justice officials, including Sutton, advising that some fired prosecutors were complaining. McNulty responded that Sutton and others should try to ease the bruised feelings. "Some hand-holding may calm things down," McNulty told Sutton.

Sutton is used to adversity. Friends recalled that despite his small stature, he played left field for the University of Texas baseball squad, though he always feared he would get cut. "He's just very, very tenacious, and every year he would win the position again," said Houston defense lawyer Rusty Hardin, a former state prosecutor in Houston who gave Sutton his first shot at government service.

After Sutton earned a law degree in 1987, he went to work for Hardin. Sutton likes to recall, as he did during the Houston radio interview, that he tried 17 murder cases "and I put three people on death row."

His career took a turn in 1995, when then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed him his law enforcement policy advisor, moving him to Austin and putting him close to both Bush and Gonzales, then the governor's general counsel. For five years Sutton coordinated various state police agencies, and he oversaw an attempt to change the juvenile justice code, though the program failed to pass in the Legislature.

All three men -- Bush, Gonzales and Sutton -- seemed a nice fit, recalled former Bush advisor Cathy Cochran, now a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. "They thought a lot alike," she said. "There was a great mutual trust and admiration for each other."

After the 2000 presidential election, Sutton moved to Washington and worked on Bush's transition team as a Justice Department policy coordinator. For Bush's first year in the White House, Sutton served as an associate deputy attorney general, and then in late 2001, with Bush's blessing, he took the reins as U.S. attorney in west Texas.

There he was regarded as reliable and tough on crime, helping police one of the most difficult sections of the southwest border corridor.

Then came the Ramos-Compean shooting in February 2005.

The agents stopped a van they suspected was involved in smuggling Mexicans just east of El Paso. It turned out the van was carrying 743 pounds of marijuana. The driver, Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, fled on foot - -- because, he says, one of them tried to beat him -- and they shot at him about 15 times, hitting him once, in his buttocks.

The agents would later say they feared Aldrete-Davila was armed. He says he was not.

The agents were found guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon, violating AldreteDavila's civil rights and defacing a crime scene. They tossed their shotgun casings into the Rio Grande to hide the evidence, prosecutors said.

Aldrete-Davila has sued the federal government for $5 million over his injuries.

The idea of federal police going to jail while an alleged criminal sues for a large sum has enraged the right against Sutton.

"Our federal government needs to get on the right side of the border conflict, and that is the American side," Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said in a House floor speech in March.

Poe, Rohrabacher and several dozen other Congress members have written Bush urging him to commute the sentences, calling them "a travesty of justice."

Border watchdog groups said they had faxed tens of thousands of citizen signatures to Washington urging a pardon. Sutton, they said, should be behind bars.

"He ought to be impeached and thrown into the same jail cells as Ramos and Compean," said Andy Ramirez, head of the California-based Friends of the Border Patrol.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked in March whether Bush would jettison Sutton; he declined to respond because of "ongoing legal deliberations in the case."

McNulty was asked during a congressional hearing whether Sutton was ever considered for termination with the others. McNulty answered with an emphatic "no."

Sutton himself has not sat idly by.

A month before the two sentences were handed down, he issued a rare, three-page written response to public "inaccuracies" regarding the prosecution of the two agents.

"It is a violation of any person's constitutional right to shoot at them after they have attempted to surrender, knowing they are unarmed and pose no danger to the officers or anyone else," he said.

His defenders, such as Hardin and Cochran, find it ironic that the same conservative base that supported the Bush administration would turn on Sutton. "I get so offended by that," Hardin said, angered that his friend was being compared to the devil.

On the Houston radio show, Sutton challenged the host: "You see me now, and I'm not Satan," he said. "I've got no horns. But you've been calling me Johnny Satan."

Well, said host Edd Hendee on KSEV radio, "the jury's out on that."

Sutton fired back, "Are you kidding? Calling me Satan is not personal?"

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