US Is Under Pressure to Ask if Justice Was Done in Case Against Native American

ACTIVISTS from around the world are pressuring President Clinton to resolve a controversial and historic case involving criminal and civil rights issues.

The case is that of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian activist who has spent 17 years in federal prison for the murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.

Mr. Peltier's supporters say there's no proof he killed the agents but that, in any case, he did not get a fair trial. Federal agencies were out ``to get'' him for his work with the American Indian Movement (AIM), they say, and evidence used against him has since been discredited.

Among those seeking freedom for him are hundreds of Indian tribes, dozens of lawmakers in the United States and Canada, 100-plus support groups in North America and Europe, Amnesty International, religious leaders, and a US Court of Appeals judge.

Some supporters have organized a cross-country ``Walk for Justice,'' to begin next week. Many groups and individuals who would seem to have no connection with the case - from the Boston City Council to the daughter of the Belgian king - have also weighed in on Peltier's behalf.

Petitions for clemency with more than half a million signatures were delivered to the White House in December, but it's unclear what the administration will do about them. It seems to be waiting for the US Parole Commission to make a decision, which is expected soon.

The official government position is that Peltier was rightfully convicted, that he has made several unsuccessful attempts to appeal, and that he must go through the confinement and parole process. The regional parole commission office in Kansas City, Mo., recently determined there was no reason to grant Peltier parole.

Though hearings are held every two years, official reconsideration for parole won't occur for 15 more years, says deputy regional parole administrator Sam Robertson. Assuming no parole but time off ``for good behavior,'' Peltier will have served 67 years in prison (30 years each for the killings; seven years for related weapons and escape charges), Mr. Robertson added. That would make him nearly 100 at his release from Leavenworth, Kan., federal penitentiary.

The Peltier case is complex and emotional. Recent accounts - Robert Redford's documentary ``Incident at Oglala'' and Peter Matthiessen's book ``In the Spirit of Crazy Horse'' - raise serious questions about the government position, and they have generated considerable public interest.

The atmosphere was extremely tense on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. There had been violence between competing Indian groups - including more than 40 killings - most of it attacks against ``traditionals,'' mainly full-blooded Indians working to preserve tribal customs and enforce historic treaties. Armed AIM activists came to the reservation to protect traditionals from attacks by other Indians and from federal agents who allegedly took sides against AIM.

During a June 26, 1975, shootout, AIM member Joe Stuntz and FBI special agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were killed. Forensic evidence showed the agents had been wounded, then shot in the head at close range.

Four AIM members were charged. Of them, one wasn't prosecuted for lack of evidence, and two were found not guilty. That left Leonard Peltier, who had fled to Canada; he was extradited in December 1976.

PELTIER was convicted the next April, though prosecutors admit they don't know for sure who killed the agents. Peltier says he's innocent. In any case, he and his lawyers assert, AIM members believed themselves under fire by unknown attackers and, thus, acted in self-defense when shooting started.

In a letter last year to Attorney General Janet Reno, Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California (a former FBI agent) and 25 other congressmen called for ``a thorough, independent review of the case.''

``There is significant evidence to suggest that the original trial was tainted,'' the lawmakers wrote. Fifty congressmen signed a ``friend of the court'' brief on behalf of Peltier during the most recent appeal of his conviction.

In a Dec. 13, 1993, letter to President Clinton, Mr. Edwards said: ``It is my strongly held view that the trial that resulted in Mr. Peltier's conviction and subsequent incarceration was so tainted by improprieties on the part of the prosecutors and the government that he has been denied due process.''

Peltier and his supporters also got a boost when US Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney, who sat on two appeals cases and wrote the opinion in one, publicly advocated possible commutation or mitigation of Peltier's sentence.

In a 1991 letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, Senate Committee on Indian Affairs chairman, Judge Heaney accused the FBI of using ``improper tactics in securing Peltier's extradition from Canada and in otherwise investigating and trying the Peltier case.'' In addition, Heaney wrote, the federal government ``overreacted'' to the nine-week takeover of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973 by AIM activists, and then played a role in the 1975 Pine Ridge violence by ``escalating the conflict into a firefight.''

None of these things are ``a legal justification for Peltier's actions,'' nor were they reason enough to reverse the conviction, the judge wrote, but they are mitigating factors. Citing the need to ``treat native Americans more fairly,'' Heaney concluded, ``at some point, a healing process must begin.''

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