DENVER – Some 250 supporters of Leonard Peltier gathered in support outside the federal courthouse in Denver during recent court proceedings. High level government officials, a vast number of attorneys and thousands of supporters from across the country and in foreign countries have called Peltier a political prisoner.
Leonard Peltier has served more than twice as long in prison than federal guidelines require.
The parole commission denied parole once and determined based on faulty evidence that Peltier would not be considered for parole until 2008. That prompted Peltier to put the case up to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Peltier is hopeful that the Appellate Court will direct the Parole Commission to provide information that would substantiate the reason for not conducting the parole hearing.
“When the commission puts off a hearing for more than 48 months it has to be supportable,” said Barry Bachrach, Peltier attorney.
The argument before the Appeals panel was that the federal government has shown that it cannot provide evidence that proves Peltier was in the immediate vicinity when two FBI agents were killed at point-blank range on June 26, 1975, near Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
In 1996, the commission went against the federal parole guidelines when it concluded that Peltier fired the fatal shots that took the lives of Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams. That fact was never proven in court.
“The decision must be reversed if the facts are incorrect and unsupported by the record,” Bachrach told the court.
Peltier’s role in the upheaval that occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation from 1973 to 1975 and somewhat beyond was identified by many as a war zone. It came to a head in 1975 with the FBI agents’ deaths and with the 1976 discovery of the body of Ana Mae Pictou-Aquash, a member of AIM and a participant in the activities on the reservation.
The government’s argument, given by Erick Melgren of Wichita, Kan. said the commission was very clear in its decision that Peltier should not be paroled whether or not he actually pulled the trigger. He was also pessimistic that the commission would change its mind should another hearing be ordered.
Bachrach asserts that the commission neglected to consider the testimony of former U.S. Attorney Lynn Crooks told a U.S. Circuit Court earlier that the government could not absolutely prove that Peltier was the shooter. A lynchpin that supports that argument is the fact that a rifle said to be Peltier’s did not match the ballistics test of the bullets removed from the agents. That evidence was never presented in court and didn’t come to light until a few years after Peltier was in prison.
And if Peltier is in jail for aiding and abetting he should have been paroled more than 11 years ago, Bachrach said.
The parole commission’s position that Peltier deserved to spend so much time in prison because he helped ambush the agents, which gives reason that he is in prison for aiding and abetting, But the commission also added its opinion, not substantiated by fact, that he pulled the trigger.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1995 was not persuaded by arguments that missing evidence, inaccurate facts and false testimony should allow Peltier a new trial.
According to federal guidelines at the time Peltier was convicted and sentenced he should have been paroled in 1986. President Bill Clinton was lobbied heavily by members of the FBI that also purchased full-page newspaper advertisements to not issue a clemency order for Peltier before he left office.
That was a political issue at the time, Bachrach said, and for the FBI to get involved with a judicial issue, which is the case now, would be fraudulent.
Bachrach said he was pleased with the court appearance and that the three judges on the 10th Circuit were responsive to arguments in support of Peltier, but there is not speculation when a decision will be issued.
(By David Melmer and Associated Press reports)