WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush left open the possibility of a pardon for two U.S. Border Patrol agents serving federal prison sentences for shooting a Mexican drug dealer as he fled and covering up the crime.
Bush said "there's a process for pardons" and the case has to work its way through the system. In an interview with KFOX-TV in El Paso, Texas, Bush said the White House will review the case, and he urged people to "take a sober look at the case."
"People need to take a tough look at the facts, the evidence a jury looked at, as well as the judge. And I will do the same thing," he said.
Several lawmakers have urged the president to pardon former Border Patrol agents Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio Ramos for the shooting of Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, who retreated to Mexico after he was shot and later admitted he was transporting marijuana while in the U.S. illegally.
The agents began serving their sentences Wednesday — 11 years and one day for Ramos and 12 years for Compean. Both were fired after their convictions on several charges, including assault with a deadly weapon, obstruction of justice, and a civil rights violation.
Rancor over the convictions and sentencing of the agents has been simmering for months, and the two have become a cause celebre among conservatives and on talk shows. Their supporters have said they were defending themselves and have called them heroes. The agents' prosecution occurred as the issue of illegal immigration was being debated in Congress and amid campaigns for last November's midterm elections.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, introduced a bill Thursday calling for a congressional pardon of the agents. Congress has never issued pardons to anyone convicted of a crime, said Joe Kasper, Hunter's spokesman. But Kasper said Hunter believes there is enough ambiguity in the law on pardons to give it a try.
"Agents Compean and Ramos fulfilled their responsibilities as Border Patrol agents and rightfully pursued a suspected and fleeing drug smuggler. It is irresponsible to punish them with jail time," he said in a news release.
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton took the unusual step of issuing a five-page document of the "myth vs. reality" of the case as the agents began serving their sentences.
The document covered everything from the claims that the former agents were just doing their jobs to reports that the shooting was at night when it actually happened about 1 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2005.
White House spokesman Tony Snow also seemed to support the agents' conviction, listing details of the case in a briefing with reporters Thursday. He said an officer hit Aldrete in the chest with a gun after he got out of his car and that "a lot of the allegations about a scuffle and discovering drugs at the scene and all that, they're simply not supported by the fact record of the case."
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said the Justice Department should have the chance to explain why the agents were prosecuted. Cornyn sent a letter to Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asking for a hearing.
"I understand that the Justice Department believes all the facts have not come out on this prosecution and would welcome the opportunity to explain its decisions. I believe such a public explanation and opportunity for questioning is necessary," Cornyn wrote.
Cornyn said he and Sen. Arlen Specter, who chaired the committee last year, investigated the case and that his office personally interviewed Sutton.