Lawmakers demand AG nominee review border agents' prosecution

WASHINGTON — More than 40 Republican members of Congress on Tuesday demanded assurances from President Bush's attorney general nominee that he will investigate the prosecution of two Border Patrol agents now in prison for the shooting of a Mexican drug smuggler.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said nominee Michael Mukasey should not be confirmed by the Senate unless he agrees to conduct the investigation. Mukasey is expected to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as the panel opens hearings on his nomination.

"If he cannot promise he is going to review the case, he should not be attorney general of the United States," Rohrabacher said at a press conference to release a letter that he and other Republican members sent to Mukasey on the eve of Wednesday's hearing.

Also at the press conference were four other Republicans who have assailed the prosecutions of the two agents — Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Walter Jones of North Carolina, and Ted Poe and Louie Gohmert, both of Texas.

In the letter, signed by 47 House members, the lawmakers repeated assertions that agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean were victimized by an overzealous prosecution and are confined under conditions more austere than those available to terrorist suspects in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

The agents were each sentenced more than 10 years in prison for shooting Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila on Feb. 17, 2005, as he was trying to flee back to Mexico after abandoning a van containing 743 pounds of marijuana.

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of San Antonio has vigorously defended his office's handling of the case, saying the two agents fired repeatedly at an unarmed man and then tried to cover up the incident, an argument supported by a federal jury in El Paso. Ramos and Compean said they thought Aldrete-Davila had a gun and was trying to kill them.

Ramos was initially held in a federal prison in Mississippi but was later transferred to a facility in Phoenix, Ariz., after he was beaten by fellow inmates. Compean is imprisoned in Ohio.

Both agents, said the lawmakers, are isolated from other prisoners and are being held in a special housing unit. Tara Setmayer, a Rohrabacher aide who has visited Ramos and monitors Compean's treatment, said the agents are confined to their cells 23 hours a day and have few privileges. Ramos is permitted to shower only three times a week, she said.

A media representative at the Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Supporters of the agents have called on Bush to pardon the two agents or to commute their sentences, but the president has publicly supported Sutton's handling of the case and has given no indication that he plans to intervene. Gohmert suggested that the agents could be released with a monitoring device, such as an ankle bracelet, while their cases are being appealed.

The appeal is pending in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which is scheduled to hear the case the week of Dec. 3.

Mary Stillinger of El Paso, Ramos' attorney who is assisting lead attorney David Botsford of Austin in the appeal, said it is virtually impossible to speculate on when the court will rule on the case.

"Sometimes they will rule in a week or two. Sometimes it takes months," she said. "There are a lot of issues."

(e-mail: dmontgomery(at)