Leonard Peltier is a Native American serving two life sentences for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents. He is also a cause celebre.
Like convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott, who was championed by Norman Mailer, convicted police killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, who won over E.L. Doctorow, John Edgar Wideman and others, Peltier has attracted passionate literary defenders. Peter Matthiessen's 1983 book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" was a paean to Peltier's innocence.
This month, the 20-year fight over whether Peltier was wrongfully convicted has featured: actor Danny Glover holding forth for television cameras about Peltier in Lafayette Park; the FBI Agents Association denouncing Peltier in advertisements in Roll Call, on WTOP radio and in The Washington Post; and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee dubbing this month "Freedom Month for Leonard Peltier" and asking Attorney General Janet Reno for a meeting.
Peltier's clemency petition has been under review in the Office of Pardon Attorney for six years, said Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney. Peltier supporters are upset that they have not received any response from the pardon attorney, but Watney says "it isn't uncommon for something to take several years." She added that a meeting with Reno is unlikely.
Why do cases like Peltier's resonate for so long? To the FBI, Peltier is a man who shot a kneeling, injured agent--Ronald A. Williams, 27--in the face through his outstretched, shielding hand. Peltier then fired two bullets point blank into the head of unconscious agent Jack R. Coler, 28. Peltier fled the scene, and then, stopped weeks later by an Oregon trooper, fired at him and escaped to Canada.
To his supporters, the link between Peltier and the bullets that killed the two agents is tenuous. Supporters say the two witnesses who saw Peltier with the type of gun that fired the fatal shots have recanted. They point to the FBI's own admission that there were no eyewitnesses to the final fatal shots. And, supporters now add, hasn't Waco shown that sometimes the FBI hides potentially damaging information?
Among Peltier supporters, Reno's appointment of a special counsel for Waco has fueled hopes of intervention from the attorney general. President Clinton's grant of clemency to 16 Puerto Rican terrorists in August also raised hopes. To Peltier's defenders, he is a casualty of the war between Native Americans and the white man--and not that different from the Puerto Rican nationalists Clinton released.
"That's one of the things that keeps driving me nuts," says John Sennett, head of the FBI Agents Association, "is that they characterize Peltier as a freedom fighter rather than a criminal."
CUBAN CONNECTION: Speaking of clemency and long-standing debates, the House Government Reform Committee sent subpoenas last week to the White House, Justice Department and FBI seeking information regarding Cuban support of Puerto Rican terrorists.
Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) also wrote to CIA Director George J. Tenet asking whether the agency had informed President Clinton of the Cuban connection before he made his clemency decision this summer. Burton learned of the connection a week ago Friday.
"Friday [Nov. 5] we got a call from DOJ, saying 'Oh, oops, we forgot to give you some documents,' " said committee spokesperson Mark Carollo. On Nov. 8, committee staffers with clearances were allowed to inspect the classified reports, but Burton wants Justice to produce them anyway.
"We are trying to find out from the Department of Justice just what happened and how much information the department has that we believe they kept from us," Burton said at a news conference last week. He added that he may hold more hearings on the Cuban aspects of the clemency decision depending on what his inquiries yield.
TASK FORCE CHIEF: Reno has appointed a new chief of the Justice Department's Campaign Finance Task Force. Scott Fredericksen, who is expected to begin next month, replaces David Vicinanzo, who is leaving the post to spend more time with his New family in New Hampshire.
Fredericksen is a partner at Seattle law firm Stoel Rives, specializing in white-collar criminal defense, general civil litigation and employment litigation. His prosecutorial experience includes a stint as an assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria and the District in the 1980s. He also served as an associate independent counsel from 1991 through 1994, investigating allegations of fraud at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under former secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr.