(As appeared in startribune.com, October 9, 2002)
Leonard Peltier's attorneys seek change in sentence
Leonard Peltier's attorneys were back in court on Tuesday, seeking a leaner sentence for the imprisoned Indian activist.
His attorney, Eric Seitz, told a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul that his client's case should be sent back to the lower courts for resentencing because Peltier never got a fair shake in his initial trial.
He was sentenced in 1977 to two consecutive life terms for killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.
His legal team is hoping to have the consective life sentences converted to concurrent terms because that would increase his chance of being paroled.
"Judge [Lloyd] Benson believed that [Peltier] fired the fatal shot," Seitz said. "Later, it was found out that that was not reliable."
He said that if Benson, 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 a concurrent instead of consecutive sentences.
In his 8-minute argument, Seitz said that Peltier is automatically entitled to a resentencing hearing because he filed within the allotted time, and that the court can reduce the sentence if it sees fit. "We're arguing that under both, he never did get a meaningful and fair hearing," on his effort to be resentenced, Seitz said.
But former Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Crooks, who came out of retirement to argue against a resentencing, said Peltier's defense team is raising issues that already have been rejected in previous hearings. And, he said, Peltier missed his deadline to appeal. His bid for a resentencing hearing was rejected in 1979.
Crooks said that unless Peltier's attorney can show that there's been some change, the law says the sentence should remain.
"They have to point to something that has changed, and obviously, they have pointed to nothing that has changed," he said Tuesday afternoon from his home in Fargo, N.D.
Seitz said ballistics test results obtained by Peltier's defense team in 1981 revealed that the government could not link to the crime scene the rifle alleged to have been used by Peltier.
Crooks said this had been discussed in an appeals motion in 1993. It's "water that's been under the dam since 1985," he said. "They've had those two substantive appeals, and this is really nothing more than a repeat of what they argued in 1993."
After the trial, about 150 supporters gathered in front of the courthouse, holding signs that said, "Free Peltier."
Bill Means, a supporter, called the FBI corrupt. He said the jury had the right to see the evidence that he said the FBI concealed during the original trial. "We are dealing with an FBI that has poisoned the water of justice."
In a choked-up voice, Marquetta Peltier said it is time to bring her father home. "My father feels your love and strength," she said. "I want to encourage you to continue the fight to bring my father home."
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