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Imprisoned Native American Activist Leonard Peltier Again Denied Parole

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The imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier has been denied parole again. The US Parole Commission told the sixty-four-year-old Peltier on Friday that his release would “depreciate the seriousness of [his] offenses” and “promote disrespect for the law.” It was Peltier’s first full parole hearing in fifteen years, and he will not be eligible for parole again until July 2024, at the age of seventy-nine. We speak with Eric Seitz, Leonard Peltier’s attorney. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 27, 2009Parole Hearing to Be Held Tuesday for Imprisoned Native American Activist Leonard Peltier
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier has been denied parole again. The US Parole Commission told the sixty-four-year-old Peltier Friday his release would, quote, “depreciate the seriousness of [his] offenses” and, quote, “promote disrespect for the law.” It was Peltier’s first full parole hearing in fifteen years. He will not be eligible again for parole until July 2024 at the age of seventy-nine.

Leonard Peltier has been in prison for thirty-three years, convicted of killing two police — two FBI agents during a shootout on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Peltier has long maintained his innocence and has been widely considered a political prisoner who was not granted a fair trial. He is now being held at the Lewisburg prison in Pennsylvania.

I’m joined on the phone by his attorney, Eric Seitz. He represented Peltier at his parole hearing, joining us on the phone from his home in Hawaii.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Thank you for waking up very early, Eric. Describe what happened, what you learned on Friday.

ERIC SEITZ: Well, what we learned was that the Parole Commission, which is a holdover group of people from the Bush administration and an agency of the Justice Department, is never going to parole Leonard Peltier. They adopted in full the position of the FBI that if you kill an FBI agent, you should spend the rest of your life in jail, even if there are serious questions about the conduct of the FBI itself and of the government in prosecuting him.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the questions in this case and the other men who were tried separately who were acquitted years ago.

ERIC SEITZ: There was a trial of two people who were indicted with Leonard. It was held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa before a jury that acquitted them on grounds of self-defense.

The FBI, after that case, decided they couldn’t risk a reoccurrence of the same outcome, so they came up with some ballistics evidence, which purported to link Leonard to the fatal shots by which the FBI agents were killed after this shootout had occurred for some period of time and the two agents had been fatally wounded. So they convicted Leonard of firing the fatal shots, according to the jury.

And afterwards, it turned out that the ballistics evidence was questionable, at best. But the courts have refused to set aside or disturb the outcome since then. So Leonard has actually been in prison now for more than thirty-three years for a crime of which the only other two people who were actually put on trial were acquitted, and that raises all kinds of questions about the fairness of the proceedings and of, in particular, the fairness of the judgment in his case.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in Leonard Peltier’s case, he would have been tried with these men, but he, fearing he would not get a fair trial, had fled to Canada, so he was not tried and then tried separately.

ERIC SEITZ: That’s right. And then there were all kinds of questions about the proceedings by which he was returned to this country from Canada. It is an admitted fact that in the extradition proceedings, the FBI used a series of affidavits that they themselves wrote, purporting to be from a witness who was an eyewitness who wasn’t even there. So the affidavits were perjured, and yet the Canadian government readily agreed at some point to send Leonard back. And after that evidence about the perjury came out, the United States government refused to take any action to correct the situation.

So there have been all kinds of issues about this case which have percolated for more than thirty-four, thirty-five years. And we were hoping at this point in time that we could get a fair consideration from the Parole Commission. We had a very good six-hour hearing before an examiner, not the commission itself, but on their review of the examiner’s recommendations, which we still have never even seen, the Parole Commission basically adopted the position of the FBI. And in some sense, that’s actually helpful to us, because it makes it clear that they are violating the law and the guidelines, and they are basically succumbing to this whole theory that if you kill an FBI agent, you should never be paroled, and that’s not what the law requires.

AMY GOODMAN: The documents that have not been released in Leonard Peltier’s case, how many are there?

ERIC SEITZ: Well, there are thousands of documents from the investigation itself going back to the mid-1970s and beyond that. And a lot of those documents have been shrouded in various levels of secrecy, and there have been Freedom of Information Act cases that have been filed. And many of them have been flushed out, and at various times that’s how we learned about the ballistics evidence that was fraudulent, and that’s how we also learned about the nature of the FBI’s investigation and the fact that they focused on Leonard and the way in which they did after losing the first trial.

Now we’re going to try to get some more of those documents and, in particular, the documents at the Parole Commission, and we’re contemplating the possibility of further litigation, although I think probably much more fruitful at this point is going to be an effort to try to get clemency for Leonard, in terms of his advanced age, in consideration of his health, and because of the fact that this just simply is a case that needs to be brought to resolution properly.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to Leonard? And what is his response?

ERIC SEITZ: I have not been able to speak with him, because I can’t get calls in to him over the weekend. Other people have talked to him. And I have not yet really found out from them what the results of their visits were over the weekend. But I am hoping to speak with him either today or tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, while we reported that he doesn’t have — he’s not eligible for parole again until July 2024, when he’s seventy-nine, his chances before then?

ERIC SEITZ: Well, as far as the parole board is concerned, there are no chances, because they’re not going to change their position unless the personnel of the parole board changes dramatically.

Basically they have taken a hard-line position. He qualifies for parole, which was the difference this time around. He’s served the minimum time that’s necessary. He’s done everything in prison that he needs to do to make himself qualified. He came up with a parole plan prospectively for where he’s going to live and work for the rest of his life, with people to take care of him. All of those things are requirements, which he met. The only requirement he didn’t meet, according to them, which he can’t change, is the fact that he committed a crime that they regard as so heinous that he should never be released from prison. So, as far as the parole board is concerned, we will file a mandatory appeal to exhaust the channels there, but we have virtually no sense that they are going to change their position ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Seitz, we’re going to leave it there, because we have to move quickly on to our last segment. Again, commenting on Leonard Peltier, who was denied parole once again, Eric Seitz, his attorney.

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