Pubdate: Sun, 22 Jul 2007
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: A - 1, Front Page
Copyright: 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Edward Epstein, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Bookmark: (Marijuana)


Washington -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, normally a target 
for criticism from outspoken conservatives, is being hailed as an 
unlikely hero by the political right for joining them in calling for 
President Bush to free two U.S. border agents convicted of shooting a 
suspected drug smuggler.

The case of agents Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio Ramos has become a 
cause celebre for conservative talk radio, bloggers and politicians. 
The agents were sentenced in October 2006 to 12 and 11 years in 
prison, respectively, by a federal judge in El Paso, Texas. 
Supporters say the initial verdict and the sentences were 
unbelievably harsh, an example of overzealous prosecution and of 
misplaced government priorities.

The critics of the sentence, many of whom opposed the failed 
immigration reform bill that Feinstein backed, also say the incident 
shows the U.S.-Mexico border is out of control because of drug 
smuggling and illegal immigration.

The two agents admit they shot and wounded unarmed drug smuggling 
suspect Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila in the buttocks as he fled from them 
after crashing a van loaded with 743 pounds of marijuana. He fled on 
foot, they caught him and scuffled. He escaped and refused their 
order to stop as he ran toward the Mexican border.

Compean and Ramos opened fire. The two veteran agents say they saw 
him reaching for something, perhaps what they thought might be a gun, 
when they fired.

Aldrete-Davila made it to Mexico, and in a step that really riled the 
critics of the federal government, was granted immunity from 
prosecution to return to Texas to testify against the agents. 
Aldrete-Davila also is suspected of subsequently trying to smuggle 
another large pot shipment into the United States, an allegation 
jurors in the agents' trial weren't allowed to hear.

San Antonio-based U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, who prosecuted the 
two, said this week at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing that 
he based his case on the theory that "the agents shot at and struck 
an unarmed, fleeing drug smuggler; that they deliberately failed to 
report the shooting as they were required to do; that they destroyed 
evidence to cover up their actions; and that they did these things 
willfully and in violation of the laws they were sworn to uphold."

Feinstein chaired the often-contentious hearing on Tuesday and on 
Wednesday joined Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in writing Bush to urge 
he commute the sentences of Compean and Ramos.

"That hearing confirmed the concerns raised by many members of the 
public: that this penalty levied on these agents is excessive and 
that they deserve the immediate exercise of your executive clemency 
powers," Feinstein and Cornyn wrote Bush.

Feinstein's decision to seek clemency set the world of conservative 
blogs buzzing. Normally she is a ripe target on such sites for her 
support of gun control and abortion rights or her opposition to the 
Iraq war. But now the senator that these critics usually call a 
dangerous liberal has become a star in their eyes.

"The world really has gone catywompus!" wrote conservative blogger Seaspook.

Referring to the senator, the blogger added, "A leader of the loony 
left asking a Republican president to partially do the right thing 
and commute the sentences of Border Patrol agents who never should 
have been charged in the first place."

"Very seldom do I end up on the same side of an issue with DiFi, but 
it's nice to have a prominent Democrat standing up for Compean and 
Ramos, who I believe deserved to be put on administrative leave for 
five days instead of being tried in the first place," wrote blogger 
John Hawkins, who runs the Right Wing News and Conservative Grapevine sites.

Hawkins is also active in the Republican presidential campaign of 
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine (San Diego County), who testified at 
Tuesday's hearing to decry the treatment of Ramos and Compean.

Lou Dobbs, the populist CNN host who has made illegal immigration and 
the agents' case a theme of his daily show, also praised Feinstein, 
who with Cornyn first disclosed on Dobbs' show Tuesday evening that 
she would seek clemency.

"The family of Ignacio Ramos watched and listened to the senators 
make their announcement in our Washington, D.C., bureau, and they 
were moved to tears. They weren't alone," Dobbs wrote in his weekly blog.

White House spokesman Tony Snow, asked about the letter from 
Feinstein and Cornyn, declined comment about possible pardons or 
commutations of sentences. The two agents haven't applied for 
presidential action.

Observers noted that Bush recently commuted the sentence of Lewis 
"Scooter" Libby, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney 
convicted of lying about revealing the name of a CIA undercover 
operative, without an application from Libby.

Asked how Feinstein feels about suddenly being a darling of the 
right, spokesman Scott Gerber said, "She didn't do it because any one 
group says it's great or not great. She did it because it's the right 
thing to do."
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