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EDITORIAL: Peltier Case

Canada Has a Role to Play

Windsor Star

September 24, 2003

Leonard Peltier, despite having spent almost 27 years in prison, has consistently been denied the basic right to a parole hearing by the U.S. government. The native activist was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a range war on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in 1976. But he has always denied having a role in their deaths, and troubling questions surrounding his case have never been fully answered.

Now, there is at least a glimmer of hope for Peltier. His legal team is appealing to Denver's 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with the hope that Peltier will finally be granted a parole hearing. The only time a parole hearing has been scheduled for Peltier was in 1986, and that hearing was inexplicably delayed until 2008 ? even though he had already served the mandatory 200 months that apply in most cases involving murder.

Peltier's plight continues to be a source of embarrassment for our country. In 1976, Peltier was extradited from Canada under questionable circumstances for the murders. He was convicted in the U.S. one year later. Peltier continues to serve two concurrent life sentences.

Peltier's extradition from Canada was based solely on the testimony contained in affidavits from Myrtle Poor Bear, who said she was Peltier's girlfriend when the shootings occurred. She also claimed to have witnessed the murder of the agents, and wrote detailed accounts to this effect.

But Poor Bear did not turn out to be a credible witness. She recently told a privately commissioned legal inquiry that she not only had never met or lived with Peltier, she wasn't even at the reserve. She added that FBI agents pressured her to make up the entire story to implicate Peltier.

As well, the FBI ballistics evidence used at Peltier's trial was later shown to be questionable and in part fabricated. Yet despite the lingering questions about the case, and the sense that Peltier was railroaded, neither the Canadian or U.S. government has made any attempt to review the native activist's case.

But the failure to give Peltier a fair hearing has led scores of high-profile individuals to support Peltier and demand justice. They include Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, Sarah McLachlan and members of Blue Rodeo.

A few Canadian politicians have been actively pursuing the Peltier case, too. Last year, NDP MP Bill Blaikie introduced a private member's bill calling for a public inquiry into this case. Canadian Alliance MP John Reynolds and former Liberal cabinet minister Warren Allmand have supported Blaikie's bill.

Unfortunately, their efforts have not brought the native activist any closer to freedom. And all of Peltier's legal appeals have failed to date. Meanwhile, no U.S. president has been willing to grant Peltier clemency. Amnesty International concluded that Peltier remains a "political prisoner" who should be "immediately and unconditionally released."

To make matters worse, Peltier's physical health is failing. He suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart condition. So bad is his health that some supporters fear Peltier won't live to see his scheduled parole hearing in five years time.

It would be a travesty if Leonard Peltier didn't get his opportunity to finally have a parole hearing. Canada may not be able to influence the Denver court's final decision on a parole hearing. But given this country's complicity in his extradition, it could prove helpful ? even in the court of public opinion ? for the government to admit that mistakes were made.

Compassion says Peltier deserves freedom. But so does a sense of fairness.


© Copyright 2003 Windsor Star