You could easily envision Johnny Sutton on a baseball diamond coaching Little Leaguers. Actually, given the boyish looks that defy his 47 years, you might actually expect to find Sutton playing in a Little League game.
But the former left fielder for the 1983 NCAA Champion UT Longhorns has of late been an involuntary participant in another diversion that's not so sporting.
As the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, Sutton has been at the center of a political game of piñata. That is to say, Sutton has been the piñata, and a bipartisan cast of politicians has joined radio talk show and cable television hosts to take a dishonest crack at him.
By their narrative, Sutton is the prosecutorial ogre responsible for unjustly sending two American heroes to the penitentiary for doing their jobs and protecting the nation. The victims in this narrative are Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, Border Patrol agents who a federal jury last year found guilty of 11 counts of assault, violation of civil rights, use of a firearm during a crime of violence and obstruction of justice.
That's the first point that needs to be made about a bizarre case in which some purported advocates of law and order have put themselves squarely on the side of outlaw gunslingers in this Wild West tale. Sutton's office may have brought the case against Ramos and Compean, but it was 12 of their peers who found them guilty after sitting through weeks of testimony and sifting through the arguments of prosecutors and four defense attorneys.
The second point is that the Ramos-Compean case is about the rule of law, not about immigration or border security. Unfortunate timing brought the case into the public spotlight just as the debate about illegal immigration took center stage. Citizens disgusted at a border negligently left open to criminals and terrorists naturally seek out symbols for their popular frustration. Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, the Mexican drug runner whom the agents shot, is exactly the kind of criminal who has taken advantage of the decades-long neglect of border security.
But no matter how loudly Ramos and Compean's defenders proclaim their martyrdom for this issue, the shooting of Aldrete as he ran away, in circumstances in which he posed no threat to the agents, in which they knew he was unarmed, whom they left lying wounded on the American side of the border and allowed to escape as part of the cover-up has little to do with border security. It has everything to do with holding the government accountable, especially the agents of the government who possess and use guns.
The third point is that while hucksters have deceitfully seized on the Ramos-Compean case to bash Sutton as the ally of criminals, they've ignored his office's record as one of the most aggressive in prosecuting immigration and drug violations, going after 13,075 defendants on felony immigration charges and 16,451 defendants on felony drug charges since November 2001.
During Sutton's tenure, there have been at least 14 other reported shootings by Border Patrol agents in the El Paso Sector that have led to the deaths of four suspects. None have resulted in prosecution reflecting Sutton's desire not to second-guess the agents. Over the same period, his prosecutors brought cases against 98 defendants for assaults on federal law enforcement officials.
There's so much misinformation about the case floating around the Internet that Sutton has posted the trial transcript and documents laying out myths and facts on the home page of his U.S. attorney's office. Belatedly and reluctantly, he's begun speaking to members of the press.
Because despite the abuse he's suffered in the media, he recognizes the critical role a free press plays in governmental and, especially, prosecutorial accountability. The misconduct of former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong in the Duke rape case lends an air of credibility to some of the patently false accusations made against the Ramos-Compean prosecution. Despite the lumps he's received, Sutton endorses intense public scrutiny as the American way.
Reluctantly, because as Sutton revealed in a recent meeting with the Express-News Editorial Board, he's cognizant of the immense power he has as a federal prosecutor. He has sympathy for Border Patrol agents who face a tough job in dangerous circumstances. That sympathy obviously extends to Ramos and Compean, notwithstanding the insults and threats that have resulted from their prosecution.
Because their case is still pending before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, every statement Sutton makes is carefully measured. Asked about the sentences for Ramos and Compean 11 and 12 years, respectively he more than once uses the word "harsh." While the facts of the case are beyond a jury's dispute, Sutton says reasonable people can disagree about the propriety of the punishment.
With a note of anguish, Sutton recounts plea bargain offers that reportedly would have put the agents behind bars for fewer than two years. When Ramos and Compean rejected those offers, they were gambling against mandatory sentencing guidelines established by Congress that add 10 years for the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime.
Time behind bars is a dangerous prospect for anyone in law enforcement. Ramos was the victim of a vicious assault last winter, an assault Sutton called outrageous. In response to a question about clemency for Ramos and Compean, Sutton declined to answer because his recommendation would become an essential part of the official clemency process should it be initiated.
But his body language tells you he believes those harsh mandatory sentences are excessive. And it suggests that few people beyond the Ramos and Compean families would be more relieved than Sutton if the two agents obtained a reprieve.
The appellate court will determine whether Ramos and Compean received a fair trial. President Bush may determine whether the agents merit clemency. There is, however, no immunity in the court of public opinion. For following the law and doing his job well, Sutton has become the target of an atrocious campaign of personal attacks. The law-and-order folks who are behind that campaign ought to be ashamed.