WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday approved a move by conservative Republicans to try to set free two Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting a Mexican drug dealer.
After a long, emotional debate, the House voted by voice to block the Bureau of Prisons from keeping former agents Ignacio Ramos and Alonso Compean in federal prison. Ramos and Compean are serving 11- and 12-year federal prison sentences, respectively, for the 2005 shooting of Osvaldo Aldrete Davila on the Texas border near El Paso.
The case has caused a furor among conservative lawmakers and on talk radio across the country.
The agents shot him in the buttocks as he fled, but got rid of crucial evidence and failed to report the incident as required. They later found a load of marijuana in a van that Aldrete had used to try to elude them. But U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton said there was no proof to tie the drugs to Aldrete so he could not prosecute him.
"The Ramos and Compean conviction has been the greatest misjustice that I have seen, and I have seen a lot," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
Democrats such as Alan Mollohan of West Virginia opposed the attempt to free the two men, arguing that it is not Congress' place to interfere in criminal cases, particularly when they are under appeal as the Ramos and Compean case it.
But Democrats opted not to call for a roll call vote. It could be dropped from the bill during House-Senate negotiations this fall.
The move came as House lawmakers debated a bill funding the Justice Department for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The underlying measure is likely to pass the House later this week, but the Senate has yet to take up a companion measure.
The language aimed at freeing the men would achieve that goal by blocking the Bureau of Prisons from spending any money to incarcerate them.
"What this does is release these two individuals while the appeal goes on," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.
Earlier Wednesday, lawmakers said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, who prosecuted the two agents, had refused an invitation to testify before a House subcommittee looking into whether Mexico had a role in the agents' case.
Sutton, the federal prosecutor for Texas' western judicial district, was asked to testify next week before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
While saying that his office did not comment on nonpublic matters while cases are pending, Sutton said his office did not have contact with the Mexican government. Sutton made the statements in a July 18 letter to Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the full committee chairman.
Sutton's decision not to testify angered some lawmakers, particularly a handful of House Republicans who have been pressing President Bush to pardon the agents or commute their sentences.
Rohrabacher said Sutton should "either testify under oath before Congress and explain these things or resign as U.S. attorney."
A message left with Sutton's office was not returned. He testified last week before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he endured some heavy grilling from senators.
Rohrabacher released copies of Customs and Border Protection documents about multiple trips across the border Aldrete made while assisting prosecutors. Sutton had said in the Senate hearing that the immigration documents are a tool often used by prosecutors for witnesses or defendants.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, submitted a document in the hearing alleging Aldrete smuggled drugs while making one of those allowed trips across the border. Sutton said at the hearing that the allegations were under investigation.
"These documents verify drug dealer Aldrete Davila had an unconditional, unescorted access pass to cross into the United States," Rohrabacher said. "Free access passes were issued to him even after he was identified by the DEA in a second shipment of narcotics into our country."