Monday, January 19, 2009

The Right Commutations At The Right Time

I can't count the number of heated arguments I've had about Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, the former DEA agents who were sentenced to over 10 years in jail after shooting and injuring a Mexican drug dealer in 2005. President Bush commuted their sentences today. My conversations have almost always end up as arguments not about the facts of the case but about illegal immigration, in the same way that most arguments about Richard Nixon end up being about Vietnam.

The U.S. attorney who prosecuted the agents, Johnny Sutton, has been pilloried on conservative talk radio for comments such as this:
These agents shot someone whom they knew to be unarmed and running away. They destroyed evidence, covered up a crime scene and then filed false reports about what happened. It is shocking that there are people who believe it is O.K. for agents to shoot an unarmed suspect who is running away.
Knowing what we do about the drug dealer, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, it's easy to understand why angry people can justify the agents' shooting him, in the back, front, or sideways. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and many others said their sentences were excessive. Sutton himself suggested in 2007 that he agreed.

But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) goes so far as to say that the pair were suffering an "unjust captivity." CBS News quoted him today as believing that the agents should never have been prosecuted. It's one thing to say the sentences may have been too severe. But for failing to follow proper procedures after the shooting, their own exculpatory accounts of the incident notwithstanding, they deserved to be punished.

Police officers often know who the bad guys are in the communities they serve. May the officers shoot them and then falsify their reports? Many evidently say yes. Gary Haugen, an evangelical Christian who founded the International Justice Mission, would probably say that he recognizes that contention. I'm sure he hears it all the time while working in Kenya, the Philippines, and other countries with imperfect legal systems, where the IJM provides legal representation both for crime victims and unjustly accused defendants. He's profiled in the Jan. 19 "New Yorker" by journalist and former Obama adviser Samantha Power, who writes:
Westerners across the political spectrum have only a vague sense of the breakdown of legal systems in poor countries -- as Haugen puts it, the rule of law is "the invisible oxygen we breath at home."
Listening to conservatives and even libertarians say that cheating cops shouldn't have been prosecuted, I feel the oxygen being sucked out of the room. The President made the right move at the right time. It is good the men are now free. They and all law enforcement officers should be honored for the endless risks they take to protect the public. Johnny Sutton did the right thing as well, holding them accountable for abusing the public's trust.

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