Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2002
U.S. appeals court rejects Peltier's sentence-reduction bid
ST. LOUIS - A federal appeals court Thursday rejected American Indian activist Leonard Peltier's request for reductions in the two consecutive life sentences he got in the 1975 killings of two FBI agents, saying the appeal came far too late. An attorney for Peltier has argued that ballistics evidence not considered by his client's sentencing judge could have led to two concurrent life sentences, not the back-to-back ones Peltier has been serving since his 1977 conviction and sentencing. Under concurrent terms, his attorney has argued, Peltier would have been eligible for parole a decade ago. Now federally imprisoned in Leavenworth, Kan., Peltier is scheduled for his next full parole hearing in 2008.
Earlier appeals, including a sentence-reduction request, have been denied. On Thursday, a three-judge 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously ruled that Peltier's time for arguing the "new" ballistics evidence he has know of since 1985 long has passed. "And equity does not support extending the 120-day filing period for the 17 years it has taken Mr. Peltier to file his renewed...motion," 8th Circuit Judge Morris Sheppard Arnold wrote.
The 8th Circuit also said Mr. Peltier's sentences were not illegal. Peltier's attorney Eric Seitz of Honolulu called Thursday's ruling " a disgrace" and proof that "nobody who seems to care about Leonard is in a position of responsibility or authority."
"I'm utterly disgusted with the callousness in which everyone seems to treat this situation," Seitz said. "These are all procedural hurdles that we supposedly have to overcome, and I think it's disgraceful that someone has to serve time under these circumstances when it's clear the case was handled ineptly and dishonestly by the government." Seitz said it was unclear whether he would ask the 8th Circuit to reconsider or if he would take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I'm not particularly optimistic that any of the judges now sitting have any compassion or willingness to do the right thing here," he said. "They're more inclined to let him rot in prison."
Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, was convicted in the June 1975 slaying of FBI agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Both agents, who the FBI said were searching for robbery suspects, were shot in the head at point-blank range after they were injured. Their bodies were left on a dirt road.
Peltier, 57, was charged with taking part in the slayings, but whether he fired the fatal shots was never proved. After fleeing to Canada and being extradited to the United States, he was convicted and sentenced in 1977, despite defense claims that evidence against him had been falsified.
Two suspects were acquitted and a third was freed for lack of evidence. On appeal, Peltier has claimed he never had the chance to argue that his sentences should be based on the theory he, at most, aided others in the 1975 killings, or that he acted in self-defense. In arguing in October for the sentence reduction, Seitz said that if the federal district judge who presided over Peltier's original trial knew that Peltier couldn't be directly linked to the shootings, he would have given Peltier concurrent - not consecutive - sentences.
Lynn Crooks, a former assistant U.S. attorney who argued against a resentencing, has said Peltier was raising issues already rejected in previous hearings. And, Crooks said, Peltier missed his deadline to appeal.
Just before leaving office in January 2001, President Clinton considered granting Peltier clemency but decided against it, after then-FBI Director Louis Freeh argued that scrapping Peltier's life sentence would "signal disrespect" for law enforcers and the public.