DENVER -- A US appeals court yesterday denied American Indian activist Leonard Peltier's request for a parole hearing after 27 years in prison for killing two FBI agents, but it strongly criticized the government's behavior in the case.
"Our only inquiry is whether the commission [parole board] was rational in concluding Mr. Peltier participated in the execution of two federal agents. On the record before us we cannot say this determination was arbitrary and capricious," the federal appeals court panel said in its 3-0 decision.
Peltier has been in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., serving two consecutive life sentences for the deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, in June 1975.
Peltier's case has garnered international attention and has come for critics to symbolize continued US government mistreatment of American Indians.
The appeals court panel in its 19-page decision had harsh words for the US government's handling of the case.
"Much of the government's behavior at the Pine Ridge reservation and in its prosecution is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed," the appeals court panel said.
But Peltier's assertion that the parole board did not give sufficient weight to the government's bad conduct as a mitigating factor is not a question the appeals court has the authority to review, the panel said.
Peltier's attorneys had asked the appeals court to review a lower court finding that accepted a federal parole commission's decision to extend Peltier's ineligibility for parole by 15 years, or to 2008, because the 1975 killing of the FBI agents was an "ambush."
Otherwise, Peltier would have been eligible for parole after serving a little over 16 years. The FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, got into a firefight with Indians when they went to the reservation to arrest four people charged with armed robbery. The agents were wounded from a distance, became incapacitated, and were killed by shots fired from point-blank range.
Four people were indicted in the slayings. Two were acquitted and the government dropped its case against a third. Peltier escaped to Canada and was later extradited and tried.
Peltier's supporters have said there was no witness testimony that Peltier shot the agents and that he was extradited from Canada on the basis of an affidavit signed by a woman with mental problems.
Since his conviction, the US government has said there may not be direct proof Peltier personally participated in killing the two agents.