national, presidential pardons, controversial pardons
Ron Edmonds/AP

Bush Ends Presidency By Commuting Contentious Sentences of Border Agents

January 20, 2009 11:31 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
In Bush's final moments as president, he commuted the sentences of two border agents who were convicted of a shooting and cover up.

Bush Commutes Border Agents' Sentences

President George W. Bush commuted the sentences of two U.S. Border Patrol Agents on Monday whose convictions have generated national controversy. Ignacio Ramos, 39, and Jose Compean, 32, received sentences of 11 years and 12 years respectively for shooting a fleeing Mexican drug smuggler in the buttocks in 2005 and attempting to cover it up, the Associated Press reports. They will now be released in less than two months. The drug smuggler, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, is currently at a low-security prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

The agents received such a heavy sentence because of sentencing rules that call for a mandatory 10-year prison term if a firearm is used in an assault. Supporters of the two men have argued that their jobs required them to carry guns, according to The New York Times. 

The agents also say that they thought the smuggler was carrying a weapon and they shot him in self-defense.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress had called for Bush to either pardon or commute the sentences of the agents, AP reports. Conservatives in the news have especially rallied behind the agents, arguing that they were simply doing their jobs and stemming the flow of illegal activity across the border. 

Mexico's Deputy Secretary for Foreign Relations Carlos Rico expressed his opposition to Bush’s decision and said Mexican officials had urged the president not to issue a pardon or commutation. "This is a message of impunity," Rico said at a news conference, according to AP. "It's difficult to understand."

White House officials claim that Bush chose to commute the sentences of the agents and not pardon them because he judged their verdict to be just, but excessive. The commutation also came without a formal recommendation from the Justice Department, which was still in the process of reviewing the case, according to the Times.

Bush has now granted 189 pardons and 11 commutations during his two terms in office. According to AP, “That's fewer than half as many as Presidents Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan issued.”

Bush is not expected to hand out any more pardons or commutations. Some thought Bush would also use his pardoning and commuting privileges in prominent cases like that of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, and that of financier Michael R. Milken. Bush was reputedly also thinking about taking “pre-emptive action” to protect former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and other government and intelligence officials from any legal liability “liability over their roles in interrogations, surveillance or other Bush administration policies,” according to the Times. 

Pardon Me?

Some of the most potentially politically damaging applicants for pardons included former Congressman Randal "Duke" Cunningham, who was convicted of accepting bribes, and financier Michael Milken, who served time after being indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and securities fraud.

While Milken is no longer in prison, a presidential pardon would have restored his rights as a non-felon, essentially forgiving the crime committed. A president also has a limited right to grant clemency, which is a forgiveness of the time meant to be served for a crime, or a commutation, which amounts to an immediate release from prison.

A recent example of a request for a commutation comes with the appeal of John Walker Lindh, who was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison after being taken into custody in Afghanistan and charged with providing material assistance to a terrorist organization.

A pardon can be granted either as full or conditional, and an applicant for either must have completed their prison term and expressed regret for their crimes.

It appears that Bush, who has just hours left in the White House, won't be pardoning or commuting those sentence. But, as history has shown, the most controversial pardons are usually done at the last minute.

Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton all issued last-minute pardons that were deemed controversial and questionable by critics and media observers. While the elder Bush’s pardoning of those individuals tied to the Iran-Contra scandal attracted no shortage of criticism, Clinton’s wave of last-minute pardons resulted in a storm of questions.

On his final day in office, Clinton issued 140 pardons.

Although he has not officially applied for a pardon himself, former vice presidential advisor I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby reportedly received support from friends to receive one.

Following Libby’s sentencing, Bush commuted his sentence but did not provide for a full pardon.

There was also speculation that Bush would have pursued a blanket pardon for all those “involved in formulating Bush administration legal justifications for interrogation and expansive presidential war powers” or those CIA agents charged with carrying them out.

A blanket pardon is a broad decree covering unnamed individuals and was used by Jimmy Carter to pardon those who had avoided the Vietnam draft.

Since George Washington offered the nation’s first presidential pardons when he asked that those who had taken part in the Whiskey Rebellion be spared punishment, the pardon process has always resulted in some sort of controversy.

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