Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
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under-reported in mainstream media
posted Sept. 30, 2009

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After 32 Years in Prison,
American Indian Activist
Leonard Peltier Denied Parole


 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Eric Seitz,
attorney for Native American activist Leonard Peltier,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus


peltier

Native American human rights activist Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated for more than 32 years. He was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Violence on the reservation occurred during a time of open warfare between Indian traditionalists and the corrupt tribal leadership, while U.S. government forces occupied the land.

Peltier's trial was riddled with improprieties, including withholding by the government of exculpatory evidence and coercion of witnesses, all amid an atmosphere of great fear and intimidation. Peltier has always claimed he did not shoot the FBI agents. Two other Indian activists arrested for the same crime, but tried separately, were acquitted based on their claim of self-defense.

Members of the FBI have always been active in opposing every motion for a new trial and challenged a request for clemency from former President Bill Clinton. This summer, Peltier came up for parole after serving the required minimum 15 years on each murder conviction, served consecutively. But the George W. Bush-appointed members of the federal parole commission denied Peltier parole release. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Eric Seitz, Peltier's attorney, about this latest development and what might lie ahead.


ERIC SEITZ: The parole commission consists of five people appointed by the president. There are only four, because there's one vacancy. The current chairman is a holdover from the Bush administration, but he was appointed chairman by President Obama. The other three members are holdovers from the Bush commission, and are not people that we had any particular anticipation that they would be sympathetic.

BETWEEN THE LINES:Given that scenario, how optimistic were you going into the parole hearing?

ERIC SEITZ: We were optimistic to some extent, because this was the first time that Leonard was actually appearing at a time when he was eligible under the statutory and regulatory criteria. And secondly, we were optimistic because Leonard is now 65 years old -- or was a month short of 65 -- and has serious medical problems, and there have been definite policies in the federal prisons to parole people based upon age and physical infirmities. And so we thought that all of those things considered -- coupled with the controversy about the case, which has always raised at least some dissatisfaction even in circles that are not sympathetic to Leonard or the causes he represents -- that this case was mishandled, and we thought maybe at this point in time there would be some realistic assessment that we have to fix this, and the way to fix it is to release him and allow him to live the rest of his life outside of prison.

BETWEEN THE LINES:How long did it take the commission to decide they weren't going to release him?

ERIC SEITZ: Well, we had a six-hour hearing, not before the commissioners themselves, but before an examiner who was appointed by the commission to conduct the hearing. That in itself was somewhat unique; I've never had a parole hearing that lasted that long, in either a state or federal case. And then they took until about...let's see, we had the hearing on the 28th of July and got the decision on the 22nd of August, and the decision was a very brief, two-page decision, simply saying that because of the nature of the offense that they would not consider paroling him and to come back and see us in another 15 years.

BETWEEN THE LINES:Eric Seitz, I know Peltier spent many years in prisons in Illinois and Kansas, where his family could more easily visit him, but he's been in Lewisberg Penitentiary for the last few years, which seems like additional punishment, being so far from family and friends.

ERIC SEITZ: If he's going to stay in prison, we've made efforts in the past and been hopeful that we could get him back toward the area where his family is, but that has not worked out for a number of reasons, and that's also a consideration at this point that we're investigating.

BETWEEN THE LINES:What are Leonard Peltier's options at this point?

ERIC SEITZ: Well, we filed an appeal, which is what we're obligated to do, which was filed about a week ago, but since it's going back to the same people, we don't anticipate that we're going to get any different result. After that, we have a choice to make. We can probably file a lawsuit against the parole commission in the western district of Pennsylvania, which is the area where Leonard is now incarcerated, arguing that the criteria they have used here are illegal and impermissible and essentially denied parole in violation of the applicable laws and regulations, which we believe to be the case. Or, alternatively -- and I say alternatively because we can't do both -- we can try and seek some sort of favorable action from the Obama administration to try to get Leonard out of prison because of his health and for other reasons that I've mentioned.

We are trying to figure out now what the best course of action would be, and when we get that appeal, we will decide which way we're going to go with it. BETWEEN THE LINES:And if you go to the Obama administration, what would you ask for? A pardon? Clemency? Or something else? ERIC SEITZ: Well, the president has plenary authority over federal prisoners; he can do whatever he wants. He can order the person pardoned -- which we would never seek, because politically, that would never happen. He can grant clemency in some form, which means to allow the person to be released for time served or he can reduce the sentence and allow the person to be released after a certain additional period of time; or, he can order the parole commission to release him on parole. We don't know what we're going to do at this point; we're investigating; we're talking to people; we're inquiring.

We understand that it would be a very difficult political decision at this point for this new administration to take any favorable action because it would be very controversial and it would be anathema to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that have taken strong positions in this case. On the other hand, we understand that there are lots of people who support Leonard and who feel he should never have been convicted in the first place, and that having served 34 years, it's time to allow him to go home, and we're hopeful we can come up with a resolution that will cause that to happen sooner rather than later.

Native American activist Leonard Peltier is currently imprisoned at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. For more information, contact the Leonard Peltier Defense/Offense Committee at (701) 235-2206 or visit their website at www.whoisleonardpeltier.info.

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Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Oct. 9, 2009. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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