FORT WORTH, Texas — In one of his final presidential acts, President George W. Bush on Monday commuted the prison sentences of two Texas Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting a Mexican drug smuggler in 2005.
The cases of Ignacio Ramos and Jorge Compean, who drew more than decade-long prison sentences, ignited conservatives and Congress and sparked countless pleas to Bush asking him to pardon the former agents or commute their sentences.
"I want to express my deep appreciation to President Bush for his compassionate grant of executive clemency," said David L. Botsford, an Austin attorney for Ramos. "It was in fact the right thing to do."
Some members of Congress who maintain that the men were given too-stringent sentences had asked Bush for more than a year — and as recently as last week — to commute the sentences.
Conservative outrage over the case was intensified by the national debate over illegal immigration and border security. Many Republicans, already angered by Bush's pro-immigration policies, sharply criticized the president for not releasing two veteran lawmen who supporters said were merely doing their job in protecting the border.
One of the leaders of the effort to free the agents in the House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, called last week on U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of San Antonio, who has long ties to Bush, to urge the president to free the men. Sutton's office didn't return telephone calls seeking comment Monday.
"Our prayers have been answered!" Rohrabacher said in a statement Monday. "This is not just a day of celebration for the families but it is a victory for all Americans, while acknowledging our system is flawed, to see that if they are involved, if they speak up and utilize their freedom, injustices can be corrected."
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, spent more than half an hour talking on the House floor Friday night about the need for a commutation.
"We stayed on this until the last night," said Poe, a former judge. "I was pretty much a hard-liner as a prosecutor and a judge. But in this case, justice demanded they be released. And I'm glad it happened."
In the Senate, Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, members of the Judiciary Committee, led the effort to have Bush free the agents.
"I am extremely pleased the president answered my plea, and that of like-minded colleagues and millions of Texans and Americans, in commuting the sentences," Cornyn said in a statement Monday. "These individuals have already paid the consequences of their actions and beyond.
"I am very pleased to learn that the president has commuted the sentences," Feinstein said in a statement. "Senator Cornyn and I held an extensive hearing that looked deeply into this case, and I believe this commutation is deserved."
Ramos and Compean were convicted for the 2005 shooting of Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, who was trying to flee back to Mexico after abandoning a van that was carrying 743 pounds of marijuana near Fabens in west Texas.
After a high-speed chase, Aldrete-Davila left his van and ran away. The agents shot him, didn't report the shooting and threw away the shell casings.
Ramos was sentenced to 11 years, Compean to 12. Aldrete-Davila — who testified at the agents' trial — later was convicted on drug charges and is serving more than nine years in prison.
Bush's order means that both men's sentences will end March 20, although they can be released before then, said Bob Baskett, the Dallas attorney for Compean.
Baskett said he'd spoken to Compean on Monday morning after prison guards gave him the news.
"Of course he was very happy," said Baskett, who didn't want to give many details about the call. "Between him and his wife and their family, they are just as happy as can be."
While Bush's commutation means that both men get out of prison, the felony convictions remain on their records, which means they still face probation and can't work as law enforcers again. Baskett said they'd appeal the convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some conservative groups lauded the action, even encouraging people to call the White House to thank Bush for his action.
"The only thing that could have been better is if it had been a pardon," said Cathie Adams, the president of the Dallas-based conservative Republican group Texas Eagle Forum. "Everyone had pulled out all the stops at the last moment. They were set to spend another decade in prison and their lives every day were endangered there."
Monday's two commutations come on top of 14 pardons and two commutations that Bush issued in November. With Monday's two commutations, Bush has issued 182 pardons and grants of clemency during his eight years in office. During their eight years each in office, Bill Clinton issued 459 pardons and Ronald Reagan issued 406.
(Tinsley and Montgomery report for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY