NEW ORLEANS – Federal prosecutors may have overreacted in their case against two Border Patrol agents who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after jurors convicted them of shooting a fleeing drug suspect and hiding evidence of the incident, an appeals court judge said Monday.
Judge E. Grady Jolly, one of three judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hearing the case of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, questioned whether the two agents would have been charged if they had reported the shooting.
"For some reason, this one got out of hand, it seems to me," Jolly said of the agents' prosecution.
A federal jury in Texas convicted Ramos and Compean of assault, obstruction of justice and civil rights violations in the wounding of Osvaldo Aldrete Davila on the Texas border near El Paso in 2005. A federal judge sentenced Compean to 12 years in prison and Ramos to 11 years.
The agents' attorneys are asking the 5th Circuit to throw out the convictions. The judges didn't indicate when they will rule on the appeals.
"It does seem to me like the government overreacted here," Jolly said, noting the severity of the charges and the lengthy sentences prosecutors sought, as he questioned Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Stelmach.
Jolly said that if the agents had reported the shooting, as required, "this prosecution never would have occurred, in all likelihood."
Compean's lawyer, Bob Baskett, said he was encouraged by Jolly's comments.
"They certainly were aware of the significant issues in the case," Baskett said after Monday's hearing.
Ramos' attorney, David Botsford, said he didn't read anything into the judges' remarks.
"The court is going to follow the law," he said outside the New Orleans courthouse.
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, in a written statement following the hearing, said he expects the appeals court to "resolve the disputed legal issues in accordance with the rule of law."
"Some in the media and on the Internet have tried to portray agents Compean and Ramos as heroes, but that narrative is false," Sutton said. "The actions of Compean and Ramos in shooting an unarmed, fleeing suspect, destroying evidence, and engaging in a cover-up, are serious crimes."
The convictions of Ramos and Compean caused a national firestorm among conservative lawmakers and others. Critics have repeatedly called the prosecution unjustified and the sentences extreme.
Aldrete survived the February 2005 shooting. He was arrested last month following an October indictment on various drug charges.
In exchange for his testimony against the agents, Aldrete was given immunity from prosecution for allegedly trying to smuggle drugs the day he was shot. Jurors didn't hear evidence that Aldrete allegedly smuggled marijuana in the United States several months after the shooting.
Botsford said Judge Kathleen Cardone, who presided over the trial in El Paso, Tex., should have allowed jurors to hear evidence that Aldrete was "not a (drug) mule, a simple one-time (border) crosser."
"He basically left a false impression for that jury," Botsford said of Aldrete.
Judge Patrick Higginbotham, who heard the appeal with Jolly and Judge Edward Prado, said evidence that Aldrete made multiple attempts to smuggle drugs across the border "strikes me as very relevant."
Stelmach acknowledged that Aldrete told "some lies" to investigators, but he said jurors rejected the agents' argument that they acted in self-defense when they shot at Aldrete.
During his trial, Compean testified that he shot in self-defense after seeing what he believed to be a gun in Aldrete's hand. Ramos said he fired in defense of Compean. Aldrete denied having a gun. Both agents acknowledged not reporting the incident.
Baskett said Cardone failed to properly instruct jurors on the legal principles governing the use of deadly force by law-enforcement officers.
"What you basically have is an equivocal direction to the jury on a basic charge in the case," Baskett argued.
The agents' wives and several Border Control agents attended Monday's hearing.
"I'm still very guarded about it, because you never know what to expect," Ramos' wife, Monica, said.
Compean's wife, Claudia, said the judges' remarks gave her a "little hope."
"It was very encouraging, considering the luck we've had in the past," she said.