Appeal heard in case of Indian convicted of killing FBI agents
St. Louis — It has been 10 years since two FBI agents were killed in a confrontation with a group of Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But the time that has passed since that incident has failed to cool the anger of American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders and their supporters, who continue to press their claims of innocence for the only man convicted in the shootings, Leonard Peltier.
In a federal courtroom in St. Louis this week, lawyers for Peltier resumed their efforts to reverse his 1977 murder conviction in the two deaths.
The attorneys, headed by prominent civil rights lawyer William M. Kunstler told a three-judge panel and the US Eighth District Court of Appeals that Peltier should be tried again, based on evidence that has come to light since Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in 1977.
``The FBI suppressed evidence in this case. Only through the Freedom of Information Act did the evidence emerge,'' Mr. Kunstler said during an interview in St. Louis.
Assistant US attorney Lynn E. Crooks, who tried the case in Fargo, N.D., said in court that the evidence cited in Peltier's appeal was available to his attorneys at the time of the trial. Mr. Crooks also said Peltier would be convicted again if there were to be a new trial. He could not be reached for further comment.
A key element in Peltier's appeal is the results of initial FBI ballistics tests that allegedly indicate the bullet casings linked to the shootings do not match the gun owned by Peltier. That evidence was suppressed by the court during Peltier's 1977 trial.
In an earlier appeal, US District Court Judge Paul Benson refused to grant a motion for a new trial, ruling that the information obtained later by Peltier's lawyers ``did not create a reasonable doubt'' and would not have affected the outcome of the trial. It is Judge Benson's decision that is being appealed.
Peltier's case has drawn attention from all over the world. Church leaders, congressmen, and the Soviet Union (in response to US criticism of treatment of Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov) have questioned the conviction in documents filed with the court. Those calling for scrutiny of the case include Anglican Bishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.
``You have to understand that this has not just touched a nerve in the Indian community,'' said Raoul Salinas, an organizer with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. ``It has touched a nerve in the world community, because it has been made clear that the conviction was based on FBI misconduct.''
Peltier is described by his lawyers and supporters as a modern-day version of past Indian leaders who stood and fought rather than surrender Indian rights and lands. The 1975 battle with federal agents stemmed from the transfer of thousands of acres of the Pine Ridge Reservations to the federal government, a transaction that Peltier supporters says was engineered by corrupt Indian leaders cooperating with federal authorities. The land contains uranium and other minerals.
Four Indians were charged in the death of the two FBI agents, but charges were dropped against one, and two others were acquitted.
``It was a firefight. Anybody could have killed them,'' Kunstler said. ``They needed somebody. It was an insurance policy. I understand the psychology behind it. If a police officer is killed, they've got to get somebody. It greatly improves the level of their morale.''
Dr. Van A. Reidhead, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and an expert on Indian culture, says Peltier's charismatic leadership and efforts to preserve the old Indian belief that the land is sacred, has kept supporters fighting for his release.
A ruling on Peltier's request may not be made for several months by Eighth District Court Appeal judges, Donald R. Ross, Gerald W. Heaney, and John Gibson.