The ruling outraged Border Patrol representatives and supporters of tighter border control and renewed efforts on Capitol Hill to exempt law enforcement officials from the mandatory gun statute and convince President Bush to commute the agents' sentences.
The Ramos and Compean case has been a contentious political issue and has been championed by many GOP members of Congress and conservative talk show hosts and blogs.
However, the three-judge panel ruled that ''the government's evidence, if believed, is sufficient to uphold the convictions."
''The jury was the fact-finder. The jury heard all of the evidence. The jury returned the verdict," the court ruled in a 45-page opinion.
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio, whose office prosecuted the case, said the court ruling validated his contention the case was ''about the rule of law."
"Those who understand the record and the evidence introduced at trial will realize the actions of Compean and Ramos in shooting an unarmed and fleeing suspect were serious crimes, which had to be prosecuted in order to maintain the rule of law," Sutton said.
Compean and Ramos were sentenced in October 2006 to 11 and 12 years in prison, respectively. The two were found guilty by a federal jury on charges of assault, violation of civil rights and use of a firearm during a crime of violence.
The convictions against the agents stemmed from the Feb. 17, 2005, shooting of Oswaldo Aldrete Davila.
Aldrete, an illegal immigrant, had crossed the Rio Grande and picked up a van southeast of El Paso loaded with marijuana. After a car chase toward the Rio Grande, Aldrete ran from the agents and was shot in the buttocks with a bullet from Ramos' gun.
According to trial testimony, the agents didn't report the shooting to supervisors, and Compean picked up his shell casings from the area near the river as part of a cover-up of the crime scene.
At trial, the agents said they saw something in Aldrete's hand that appeared to be a weapon and felt justified in firing their weapons, the appeals court noted.
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council union, said the agents will continue their appeal, asking the entire 5th Circuit Court, and if necessary the U.S. Supreme Court, to reconsider.
''It's devastating," Bonner said. ''It means if you use your weapon in self-defense, you too can be looking at 10 years in federal prison. And that's not really the message the court should be sending, not just to Border Patrol agents, but to every law enforcement agent in America."
Bonner said the jury would have acquitted the agents if they had been allowed to hear all the evidence about Aldrete, who said he was a first-time offender trying to earn money to pay for his mother's medical bills.
''The part of the story they should have heard is this guy was a career criminal," Bonner said.
Aldrete pleaded guilty in April to federal charges of smuggling marijuana into the U.S. months after being shot by the former agents.
Ramos and Compean have become a rallying point for groups favoring tighter immigration policies.
''This is going to be devastating to the U.S. Border Patrol," said Curtis Collier, president of U.S. Border Watch, which is based in Houston. ''Morale will plummet, and the risk to agents on the border will certainly increase because this will be known all the way back into Latin America."
But in its ruling, the appeals court was emphatic the agents had no legal authority to shoot the smuggler.
''The government's evidence showed that the agents had no reason to shoot the drug smuggler — that he had abandoned his van loaded with marijuana, that he was running on foot back to Mexico, that he posed no physical threat to either officers, and that he was shot in the buttocks," the ruling states.
The court, however, did throw out the agents' earlier convictions for tampering with an official proceeding.