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President will consider Peltier clemency

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. - What appears to be a last-ditch effort to convince President Bill Clinton to release Leonard Peltier is under way.

The Internet is buzzing with information and letters that pass between supporters and a toll-free phone line has been established to register opinions that will be sent to the White House.

On a radio program over Pacifica radio and a station in New York, Clinton said he would consider Peltier's case among cases of other inmates who have requested clemency.

"I know it's very important to a lot of people, maybe on both sides of the issue. And I think I owe it to them to give it an honest look-see," Clinton said. "I will see what the merits dictate, based on the evidence."

White House Spokesman Daniel Cruise said the president would focus on all clemency cases after the election.

Peltier supporters believe they have a window of opportunity between Thanksgiving and the time Clinton leaves office. Past presidents have used their lame-duck status to pardon or offer clemency to people considered to be falsely imprisoned.

Many people, American Indian and non-Indian who are Peltier supporters, used the Thanksgiving holiday to protest against the history of the holiday as well as bring about an awareness of the Peltier issue. From Denver to Boston, protesters went to the streets and in front of capitol steps.

In Denver, members of the American Indian Movement avoided the traditional turkey dinner and fasted. They laid out a buffalo robe with a buffalo skull, burned candles and sage and drummed in their sunrise-to-sunset vigil. The hope was that the message of the drum would travel to the White House.

Mona Roy, an AIM member, said it was appropriate to use Thanksgiving Day for their purpose because it was the only day of the year Americans thought about Indians. She said the support for Peltier has grown rapidly because of available technology.

Glenn Morris, university professor and AIM leader in Colorado, said he wanted the American public to focus on the problems faced by American Indians, which have been in existence for 508 years. Morris was an organizer of the Denver protests over the Columbus Day parade.

The flurry of activity involves phone trees, publishing the White House number and e-mail and ground-mail writing. The FBI, on the other side, is doing the same thing in an attempt to convince the president to keep Peltier in jail. Members of the retired FBI association purchased full-page ads in national newspapers and conducted a letter-writing campaign to the White House.

"What you are seeing is a reflection of how disturbing this case is. Why not earlier? This case went on for so long it went off peoples' awareness scales. I'm pleased with public interest and pleased that Clinton is taking this seriously," said Jennifer Harbury, attorney for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.

She said the positive outpouring of the case is a reflection of the great concern the public has as to damage done years ago. The case is controversial and disturbing to civil rights organizations, she said.

"The FBI was working with vigilante groups and burned houses and killed many AIM members. Myrtle Poor Bear who gave testimony to extradite Leonard from Canada admitted she lied. Experts admitted the bullet didn't come from Leonard's gun."

The evidence was used to gain a new trial for Peltier, but the judge ruled a new jury may not come up with a different conclusion even with the new evidence.

Peltier is the only person serving jail time in the deaths of two FBI agents at the Jumping Bull Camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. He is serving two life sentences in the deaths of agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams. AIM member Joseph Killsright Stuntz was killed during the gunfight.

Members of the defense committee claim Peltier never received a fair trial. He was convicted in Fargo, N.D., while two others were acquitted and another suspect released for lack of evidence.

Attorneys for Peltier and his growing support group claim he was convicted on falsified evidence. And, they claim the federal government refuses to look at evidence that would clear him.

"I'm feeling very hopeful. Awareness of all of the facts in this case got lost in a quirk in the legal system. There is a whole lot of reasonable doubt. The prosecuting attorneys said they don't know who pulled the trigger.

"That's not supposed to happen in our legal system, but has. I'm pleased that this case is finally getting the attention it deserved and will help relations between the U.S. government and tribal nations," Harbury said.

Support for clemency comes from as far away as South Africa. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned most of his adult life for opposition to apartheid in his country, was asked by members of the Minneapolis AIM organization to use his influence to help achieve clemency for Peltier. A long list of celebrities, elected officials, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, American Indian organizations and others have gone on record in support of clemency for Peltier.

"He is way overdue for parole. For a man that has been getting human rights awards, he should be released in 24 hours, but has remained in prison more than 25 years," Harbury said.

Amnesty International joined in support of Peltier. An attempt to get Peltier a retrial failed in federal court in St. Paul. A parole examiner refused a parole hearing for Peltier. His next chance will come in 2008.

Constitutional authority is given to a sitting president to pardon or issue clemency. Clinton has not used that authority to the extent past Presidents Bush, Reagan and Carter have. Of the 6,480 petitions for pardons or commutations, Clinton granted 208.