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Sen. Campbell urges decision on Peltier clemency

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A letter from Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., calling for a decision on a petition for executive clemency filed by Leonard Peltier recently was delivered to the White House.

Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, was convicted for the 1975 murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He has served nearly 25 years at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.

As a result of numerous questions and inconsistencies in the case, many claim he is innocent, citing the government's lack of evidence connecting Peltier to the murders.

"Mr. Peltier filed a petition for executive clemency in 1993 and as of November, 2000, it will have been seven years since the original filing," wrote Sen. Campbell, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "Given this time frame, and the expedition with which you considered other requests for clemency, I believe that fundamental fairness and basic precepts of due process require a decision on Mr. Peltier's petition."

Peltier was charged in the deaths of two FBI agents following a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in June 1975. The shootout initially erupted following a traffic stop and chase onto private property. The property, at the Jumping Bull ranch near Oglala, was called the "Jumping Bull Compound." It was a gathering place for Oglala traditionalists and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to which Peltier belonged.

The situation deteriorated into a firefight involving approximately 30 American Indian people and the two FBI agents, BIA police, U.S. Marshals and local police. When hostilities ended, two FBI agents - Jack Coler and Ron Williams - and one American Indian, Joe Killswright Stuntz, were dead.

Although there was no investigation into Stuntz' death, the FBI said he was killed during the firefight by a law enforcement agent. The government launched a full-scale investigation into the deaths of the agents. Three people were tried, including Peltier. Two were acquitted while Peltier, who had fled to Canada, was tried later in a different court and found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

Questions have been raised over admitted improprieties by the federal government with regard to its prosecution of Peltier, including his extradition from Canada and confusion over expert testimony on ballistics evidence. Although denying a new trial, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Peltier's initial trial and previous appeals were riddled by FBI misconduct and judicial impropriety.

In its decision, the court stated:

"There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and the data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government's case."

The court called the FBI's misconduct "a clear abuse of the investigative process." It ruled against a new trial based on the "Bagley Test" which requires that the court be convinced, from a review of the entire record, that had the information withheld been made available, the jury would have reached a different decision. While the court held it was possible the jury could have reached a different decision, in the end, the judges could not be sure.

Years later, the judge who wrote the decision wrote a letter recommending that Peltier be released through executive clemency saying, "the FBI used improper tactics in securing Peltier's extradition from Canada and in otherwise investigating and trying the Peltier case."

In June, Peltier was again denied parole even though U.S. prosecutor Lynn Crooks admitted in a 1995 parole hearing that no evidence existed against Peltier, that the government never really accused him of murder, and that if retried the government could not reconvict.

"It was more of what we interpreted as a token approach to the parole process," said Ernie Stevens Jr., member of the executive board of the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund. "We don't feel his application for parole was legitimately evaluated."

Although Peltier was denied parole, advocates such as Stevens are hopeful, seeing executive clemency as a viable alternative.

"Clemency is something that is appropriate," Stevens said. "I think working through the president is our best hope."

While many in and outside Indian country support clemency, including prominent figures such as Nelson Mandela and organizations like Amnesty International, some within the law enforcement community continue to argue against his release.

"The unfortunate situation that we have is a lot of lobbying by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that continue to promote falsehoods about his case," Stevens said.

"In order for us to move away from the era that was so terrible and where so many lives were lost we have to forgive and move on. Leonard's freedom would help us do that."

The White House has yet to respond to Senator Campbell's letter.