For a formidable and growing global community of supporters, the prospect of Native American activist Leonard Peltier finally leaving prison inspires a longing that cuts to the depths of the soul.
So Peltier's first parole hearing of the Obama Era -- on Tuesday, July 28 -- inspired hope of an intensity that will have a major impact on the new presidency. A decision must come from the Federal Parole Commission within three weeks. His attorney is calling for a surge of public support that would create an irresistible political climate for Leonard's release.
The relationship between Peltier and those who have followed his case over the decades can be intensely personal. His imprisonment has come to stand not only for five centuries of unjust violence waged against Native Americans, but also for the inhumane theft of the life of a man who has handled his 33 years in jail with epic dignity, effectiveness and grace.
Peltier's latest parole hearing convened at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he is currently held. According to Eric Seitz, Peltier's Honolulu-based attorney, Peltier spoke for more than an hour "with great eloquence" about the nature of his case, his imprisonment and his plans for freedom. "The hearing officer seemed to listen carefully," said Seitz. "We thought it went very well."
The decision on Peltier's parole will be made by the four sitting members of the Federal Parole Commission whose offices are in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Commissioners Isaac Fulwood, Jr., Cranston Mitchell, Edward Reilly and Patricia Cushware are all Bush appointees. One seat is vacant; Fulwood was elevated to the Chairman's seat in May by President Obama.
According to Seitz, the hearing was taped by an officer charged with reporting to the Commissioners within 48 hours. The Commissioners are required to render a decision within 21 days---by August 18. Should they rule in his favor, Peltier could walk out of prison very soon after the decision is issued.
Should the Commssioners turn down his parole application, Seitz says the appeal would go to the federal district court in Harrisburg. The report of the hearing would become available to Peltier and the public.
Seitz said he spoke to the record for about 20 minutes on the legalities of the case. He said Peter Mattheissen, author of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, explained the history of the 1970s incidents that led to Peltier being accused of murdering two FBI agents. Crazy Horse is the definitive account of the origins of the case and of the climate of violence and repression imposed on the native community at the time of the killings. Seitz said Mattheissen emphasized "the many reasons to have misgivings about whether the system performed well and fairly in Leonard's case."
Mattheissen was joined by Dr. Thomas Fassett of the United Methodist Church, who testified, said Seitz, "to the negative impact of Peltier's 33-year imprisonment on the world's view of how the US government treats its native population. Leonard's case is viewed in the larger community both nationally & internationally as a major embarrassment...as a gross injustice...a black mark."
The testimony was accompanied by thousands of letters, with signees including South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, US Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), and actor Robert Redford, whose film Incident at Ogalala is the definitive documentary.
Cynthia Maleterre of the Turtle Island Clan then outlined how Peltier could meet the requirements of parole in his home community in North Dakota. Restored to his Chippewa-Dakota homeland, Maleterre explained that Peltier would have housing, a job and be surrounded by family, including great-grandchildren he has never seen.
Seitz said testimony opposing parole came from a representative of the FBI, sent by Director Robert Mueller, a holdover Bush appointee, and from the former director of the Minnesota Bureau. Two sons of Jack Coler, one of the FBI agents killed in the Ogalala shoot-out, also argued against Peltier being freed, as did a former agent named Ed Woods.
Seitz said that all those opposing parole argued Peltier should spend the rest of his days in prison, and did not deserve a new trial.
But Seitz was "guardedly optimistic" about a favorable decision from the Parole Commission. He said that a "good rapport" had been established with the hearing officer, and that the new chair of the commission is generally held "in high esteem."
President Barack Obama does have the power to grant clemency, but Seitz said prisoners apply only when all other avenues have been exhausted. Usually, says Seitz, "presidential pardons do not come until the Chief Executive is leaving office."
Seitz says letters to the Parole Commission and to local newspapers, calls to Congressional Representatives (202-224-3121), talk show hosts and other forms of public pressure are now of the utmost importance. The hope, he says, lies in creating a "public environment favorable to release."
As Leonard Peltier approaches his 65th year---having spent half his life in prison---every day is now critical to lifting this burden from our collective souls.
For more information go to http://www.leonardpeltier.net.