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July 23, 2007 - Austin American-Statesman (TX)

Editorial: Border Law And Order Has Attorney In Hot Water

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One of the odder controversies swirling these days is the bitter criticism being flung at Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, which is based in San Antonio and includes Austin.

Sutton's shortcoming, it appears, is his strict enforcement of the law even when the law-breakers are Border Patrol agents.

Sutton, appointed by President Bush, prosecuted the two agents for shooting at and wounding a fleeing but unarmed drug suspect and then lying about it in 2005.

However, it wasn't Sutton who convicted them; a West Texas jury did that after a 2-week trial laying out all evidence.

The agents are Jose Alonso Compean, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence, and Ignacio Ramos, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

Among many Americans alarmed about the nation's porous border with Mexico, Compean and Ramos are seen as martyrs, unjustly prosecuted and imprisoned by an over-zealous prosecutor while trying to protect the country from drug runners.

Sutton, though, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington this week that Compean and Ramos "are not heroes”.

“They deliberately shot an unarmed man in the back without justification, destroyed evidence to cover it up and lied about it."

The agents contended that they saw an object in the suspect's hand that looked like a gun. But they first made that claim a month after the shooting, Sutton said.

The suspect, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, entered the United States illegally in a van with more than 700 pounds of marijuana.

When the van was stopped, he got out and fled. Compean fired at him 14 times and Ramos once, and Davila was hit once as he ran away to Mexico.

On one point, Sutton seemed grudgingly to agree that it "probably wasn't a very wise move" to grant Aldrete a humanitarian visa to get him back to the United States to testify, under immunity, against the two agents.

Critics don't like his grant of immunity from prosecution in the case, either.

Among the critics of the lengthy sentences are Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Cornyn and a Democratic senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, have sent a letter to President Bush asking him to commute the sentences.

The senators are using the word "excessive" to describe the sentence -- the same word the president used to justify his recent decision to commute the sentence of former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of lying to a grand jury and investigators.

Some reduction in the sentences of the agents -- but not a pardon -- might be justified.

The man who was shot recuperated well enough to be arrested several months later in a separate drug smuggling case.

But Sutton was right to prosecute.

Law enforcement officers have every right to defend themselves but no right to start shooting suspects who have posed no threat to them or others and flee and then lie about it.

As Sutton told the committee, "If we let our agents just open fire, shooting to kill some innocent person is going to get gunned down execution-style by a cop, and there's going to be an outcry."

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