Clinton passes on pardon for Leonard Peltier

WASHINGTON - Hope for the release of Leonard Peltier, convicted for the 1975 murders of two FBI agents in South Dakota, were again dashed when he was not included on the list of those pardoned or given clemency as President Bill Clinton left office.

Peltier supporters had said they believed he had a good chance of being pardoned by Clinton because of a statement the president made in November that he would make a decision before he left office.

The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee issued a statement and called for a "National Day of Shame" following the denial of executive clemency.

Saying the committee was "both shocked and saddened" by the decision, the statement noted a recent outpouring of support from renowned human rights and religious leaders throughout the world

"Grass-roots support from people across the country had swamped the White House phone and fax lines for months. Native nations and organizations made their support known again and again in powerful messages. Thousands of concerned citizens walked and prayed in the streets of New York on International Human Rights Day. Yet somehow none of this was enough."

Asking why, the committee said only Clinton could answer.

"It can hardly be gainsaid that the history of our government's dealings with the first citizens of this country have been tragic at best, and oftentimes shameful. It is difficult to imagine a case more crucial to national reconciliation and healing than the case of Leonard Peltier. Yet a door, instead of opening, has been slammed and locked. Our society will pay the price.

In an interview, Rapid City, S.D., attorney and Peltier supporter Bruce Ellison voiced his disappointment.

"It's kept him wrongfully in prison," Ellison said.

However, he said the effort to free Peltier will continue on the same course and possibly explore new avenues. Although he said he wasn't sure about how the new Bush administration will work with the groups seeking to obtain Peltier's freedom, supporters will try.

Would the most recent attempt bring eyewitnesses who may have seen someone else murder FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler? Ellison said it wouldn't make any difference.

"If they did what would that do? The government position in court was that they have no evidence he killed the agent, but he is an aider and abetter."

Ellison explained that because of those charges, even if another party could prove they murdered the agents, Peltier would remain in prison.

"Under the aiding and abetting law, it doesn't matter who did the killing, so it wouldn't help him. Not in anyway," Ellison said. "If he's not guilty of doing it, he is guilty of aiding and abetting. Under aiding and abetting laws, the government doesn't have to prove who did the killing to try to convict somebody of aiding and abetting."

Ellison said he believes what would could effect Peltier's release would be if the government released what it considers classified files regarding the case.

He said what the government considers classified files may have critical information that would affect the Peltier case and their release could have an effect on his release.

Ellison said he believes Peltier's non-release was part of a bargaining chip between the government and Clinton over his own pardon on a perjury charge.

"If President Clinton had more backbone to stand up for what was right, if he didn't commit perjury and have to defend that in court, Leonard would be a free man today."