Native American activist Peltier gets parole hearing, first in 15 years

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) - Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist who has served nearly 50 years in prison for the killing of two FBI agents, was scheduled to have his first parole hearing since 2009 on Monday, his lawyer said.

Peltier, 79, has maintained that he did not kill FBI special agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Advocates, including figures such as the late Nelson Mandela and a former prosecutor and judge involved in his case, have long said he should be freed because of what they call legal irregularities in his trial.

But FBI Director Christopher Wray, in a June 7 letter to the top federal parole official, called Peltier a "remorseless killer" who should never be freed.

"Throughout the years, Peltier has never accepted responsibility or shown remorse," Wray wrote to Patricia Cushwa, acting chair of the U.S. Parole Commission. "He is wholly unfit for parole."

Peltier was to meet with a U.S. Parole Commission federal agent inside the Federal Correctional Complex-Coleman in Florida, according to Peltier's attorney, former federal judge Kevin Sharp.

The U.S. Parole Commission did not return requests for comment.

Peltier, who was a member of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, has said he was among a group of Native American men who fired on the two FBI agents who arrived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in June 1976, in search of a fugitive. Peltier has said that while he fired, he was not the person who killed the agents.

Two other Native American men who fired at the agents were tried in 1976 and found not guilty by reason of self defense. Peltier fled to Canada before the trial. He was eventually extradited back to the U.S. and tried separately in 1977, when he was found guilty.

Amnesty International has long championed Peltier's case. Like others, they say that government prosecutors withheld critical evidence that would have been favorable to Peltier at trial and fabricated affidavits that painted him as guilty.

Since his conviction, a former prosecutor in his trial, a federal judge involved in an appeal, Pope Francis, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Coretta Scott King and multiple U.S. senators, among others, have called for Peltier's release.

Paul O'Brien, executive director of Amnesty International, wrote in letter to the U.S. Parole Commission that granting parole on humanitarian grounds "is not only timely but a necessary measure in the interests of both justice and mercy."

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; editing by Donna Bryson and Stephen Coates)