Peltier family members work to revive support
Associated Press, Published Wednesday, November 26, 2008
FARGO, N.D. (AP) _ After following Leonard Peltier's movement from one federal prison to another, a group seeking to free him has settled in the same city where he was convicted more than 30 years ago in the execution-style killings of two federal agents.
Peltier's sister, Betty Ann Peltier-Solano, and niece, Kari Ann Cowan, are trying to revive a group that went dormant a few years ago. They have changed its name from the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee to the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee, and they hope political changes will help their cause.
"There has been a lot of depression, with him being in jail for nothing and being so far away," Peltier-Solano said from the committee's Fargo headquarters, which is filled with Peltier's artwork. "I just felt like hopeless. Now that I'm here and doing this, I feel more like I'm doing something."
Peltier, 64, is serving two life sentences for the deaths of FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, who were shot in the head at close range after being injured in a shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. His trial was held in Fargo.
Peltier says tribal officials on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, where he grew up, have agreed to take him as part of a prison transfer. He believes he has the legal right to parole.
"The law says they have to grant me parole," Peltier told The Associated Press. "I want to go home to North Dakota."
Peltier's supporters, who say he was framed, plan a rally in front of the federal courthouse in Fargo on Friday. American Indian activist and actor Russell Means is scheduled to speak.
"Somehow they've made an industry out of Leonard Peltier and raising money," said Drew Wrigley, the North Dakota U.S. attorney who in 2005 argued against one of Peltier's failed appeals.
"That's their right to do that," Wrigley said. "We are going to continue to fight to uphold a just verdict. He should be in prison for the rest of his natural life."
Peltier-Solano and Cowan said they believe Barack Obama's election may open the door for Peltier's release. Cowan saw momentum for a presidential pardon when Bill Clinton was president but said Clinton changed his mind at the last minute.
"He was packing his stuff. He was ready to go," Cowan said of Peltier.
Former South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow, a Republican who was that state's attorney general in 1975 and was at the scene of the killings, argued against a pardon in a one-on-one meeting with Clinton.
"Look, it's not my job to decide whether he gets out," Janklow said. "But the first step might be the acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Leonard Peltier is an uncaring, unrepentant, cold-blooded murderer."
Peltier has been shifted among several federal prisons in recent years, including Leavenworth, Kan., Terre Haute, Ind., and Lewisburg, Pa., where he currently is held. His relatives say he has a number of health problems including diabetes, arthritis and the loss of vision in one eye after suffering a minor stroke.
David Hill, one of Peltier's former AIM associates who calls himself an adviser to the defense committee, said another legal appeal is coming.
Hill said that when Peltier was convicted, he was told he would eligible for parole in 30 years. Parole in the federal system was eliminated in 1984, but Peltier qualifies under a grandfather clause, Hill said.
"The law mandates that he be released if he hasn't been a problem since he's been in prison. And he's been a model prisoner," Hill said. "As Indian people, we will no longer tolerate him being in prison like this — illegally, unjustly, immorally."
The Peltier committee said the case will be handled by Portland, Ore., attorney Marc Blackman, who did not return phone messages left by The Associated Press.
Said Wrigley, "It's our position that parole is not an option that should be exercised."
The change to a Democratic president means that a new federal prosecutor likely will be named to replace Wrigley, who said the Peltier case was the first file he read when he took over as the state's top federal prosecutor seven years ago.
"I was 5 or 6 years old when that case was first handled here," Wrigley said. "Down the road, there's going to be someone else out there, maybe someone who hasn't even decided to be a prosecutor, who will be doing everything he or she can to ensure that Leonard Peltier stays in prison."
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