It's now or maybe never for Indian activist Leonard Peltier.After 25 years behind bars at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas for the murder of two FBI agents that he says he didn't commit, Peltier's request for clemency has reached the desk of U.S. president Bill Clinton.
Clinton has promised to review Peltier's file personally and make a decision one way or another on his request for clemency before he leaves office.
It's the first time anyone in officialdom has agreed to look at Peltier's case, and the closest the former American Indian Movement warrior has come to outright release. He's been a model prisoner, but Peltier's requests for parole have been denied.
Should the president reject this clemency request, he will have to wait until at least 2008 for another parole hearing, a discouraging prospect for Peltier, a diabetic whose health is steadily deteriorating.
His worldwide support network has been working overtime ever since Clinton agreed to look at his case. An 800 number (1-877-561-1364) set up to enable supporters to send messages to the White House is buzzing.
Rainbow Coalition head Jesse Jackson, sympathetic U.S. congressmen and senators and Amnesty International secretary general Pierre Sane have all made personal overtures to the president on Peltier's behalf.
Closer to home, the push is also on.
The local wing of the Leonard Peltier Defence Committee has sent its own brief to the White House and has scheduled a press conference in Ottawa next week featuring native leader Matthew Coon Come. For years, the committee has voiced concerns about Canada's role in Peltier's extradition after he fled here from the U.S.
Former Grit MP Warren Allmand, who now heads the Montreal-based Rights and Democracy centre, conducted a review of Peltier's case for the current government. He has sent a missive to Clinton urging a new trial.
"I don't know if he's innocent or guilty," says Allmand, who was solicitor general when Peltier was extradited. "But he certainly was convicted on irregular evidence. The guy was railroaded."
Peltier's supporters are hopeful, but their optimism is tempered by a good dose of caution.
More than any other case in U.S. history, Peltier's has stirred raw emotion and served as a symbol of the huge divide between white and native America.
Skepticism runs high. Some observers wonder whether Clinton's pledge on the eve of the U.S. presidential election wasn't calculated to win a few votes for his buddy Al Gore. It's a theory not lost on Peltier supporters on both sides of the border. U.S. authorities, they say, will never admit to any wrongdoing.
"This is a loaded issue," says longtime local supporter Ann Dreaver. "There have been years of knocking on doors that nobody would open. Now we have a U.S. president looking at it. The chances are what they are. I don't want to measure it. I've seen so many twists, it's unbelievable. The prospect of a denial is horrifying."
Canada's role in Peltier's extradition has been the subject of much controversy. He fled to Canada shortly after a shootout with FBI agents at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and applied for political asylum because he feared he wouldn't get a fair trial in the U.S. after one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history.
Canadian authorities, in deciding to extradite Peltier in 1976, relied heavily on two affidavits filed by Myrtle Poor Bear, who claimed to be an eyewitness to the shootings.
Several months later, Peltier's lawyers became aware that there was a third Poor Bear affidavit recanting her earlier statements and claiming she had been threatened into swearing the earlier statements. Still, a federal court here rejected Peltier's request that this new evidence be heard. He was later extradited.
"This is Canada's responsibility to correct," says Dreaver. "In the aboriginal conscience, this hurts deeply."
In 1995, Warren Allmand conducted a review of the Peltier extradition that has only recently been made public. The report urged then-justice minister Allan Rock to ask U.S. attorney general Janet Reno for a new trial.
But Anne McClellan, who took over the justice portfolio in 97, washed her hands of the matter, writing Reno last year to say that, Poor Bear's bogus affidavits aside, "There is no evidence that has come to light since then that would justify a conclusion that the decisions of the Canadian courts and the minister (of justice) should be interfered with."
Allmand doesn't agree. "The extradition was fraudulent," he says.
Stateside, Peltier's cause has run into legal obstacles at every turn.
Lead prosecutor Lynn Crooks has admitted that he doesn't know for sure who killed agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams in June 75 after a shootout with natives at Pine Ridge.
Internal FBI memos have also surfaced showing that the government suppressed crucial ballistics evidence that may have exonerated Peltier if the jury had heard it at his trial.
The government says Peltier shot Coler and Williams point-blank in the face as the wounded agents lay beside their car. But the only evidence linking him directly to the scene of the shooting is a .223-calibre casing found in the open trunk of the agents' car. One test done on the AR-15 rifle police say Peltier used in the murders showed that it didn't match the casing found at the scene.
Two others charged along with Peltier were acquitted in a separate trial. Charges against a third alleged accomplice were dismissed.
Still, U.S. courts have denied Peltier's appeals on 10 separate occasions over the last 16 years. In 86, an appeal court found that: "There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defence been available to him." Yet the court went on to deny Peltier's appeal.
Meanwhile, the powerful FBI Agents Association and its offshoot, the Cincinnati-based No Parole for Peltier Association, have been busy doing their own lobbying of Clinton.
NPPA spokesperson Ed Woods suggests in an e-mail sent to NOW that Peltier's contempt for the judicial system -- demonstrated by his recent comments in the press -- and the fact that he hasn't shown remorse for the murders are sufficient evidence of his guilt.
On Monday (December 11), thousands are expected to rally in New York City in Peltier's support. They hope that night's full moon will be a good omen.