The logic in former prosecutor Lynn Crooks’ column (Forum, June 22) regarding the release of Richard LaFuente from prison is more tortured than the witnesses in this case themselves. There is absolutely no physical evidence implicating any of the defendants in the crime, no evidence of a party, no evidence that anyone charged had formed a mob and beat Edward Peltier down, and no evidence that Richard LaFuente then ran over Peltier and killed him.
The only evidence was witness statements obtained under duress. As one of the 8th Circuit panel members stated in their written decision following the deadlocked 5-5 vote for a new trial, a “gross miscarriage of justice” had occurred.
Indeed, witnesses were beaten, threatened with prison, with having their children taken away, and in at least one instance, a witness had a gun literally held to their head to coerce them to sign a statement concocted by police.
Anyone who could provide an alibi to the defendants was placed at the nonexistent party themselves and charged with murder. One by one, they recanted their testimony once the power of the tribal police waned and they no longer feared for their lives or freedom, or the guilt of having been cowed into submission was replaced with disgust at the miscarriage of justice that had occurred.
The only holdouts, as Crooks states, were LaFuente’s half sister, a habitual liar who had only met LaFuente twice prior to Aug. 27, 1983, and another who claimed to be in the car as it ran over Eddie Peltier, but whom none of the other witnesses except the habitual liar claimed to have seen at the party.
Crooks claims that LaFuente could provide no proof that the wrong man was convicted. I shouldn’t have to explain this to the good counselor, but that’s not how the justice system is supposed to work. The burden of proof is on the government to prove guilt, and as stated before, there was no evidence, none at all, except for the coerced witness statements. None of the defendants took offers of immunity in exchange for testifying against the rest.
Exculpatory evidence given to tribal police (one of whom just happened to conveniently discover the body while off duty) mysteriously disappeared. The victim was last seen in the company of some of that same policeman’s family members, was found wearing inexplicably clean clothes for someone who had been beaten and run over, and which just happened to belong to the policeman’s brother, who was a good 6 inches taller than Peltier.
The policeman had decided who was going to pay for this crime, and the FBI, the BIA, and the Justice Department willingly went along for the ride – just another chapter in the long, sad story of justice being denied Native Americans, often by the complicity of their own people.
Eddie Peltier’s own mother believes Richard LaFuente to be innocent of her son’s murder. Crooks is one of the last in a small and dwindling group of people who still believe that justice has been served in this case.
There are two types of people who show no remorse: sociopaths and the wrongly convicted. Given that a sociopath would have jumped at the opportunity to confess and get out of prison early, it’s clear which camp Richard LaFuente falls within.
Sethre lives in Fargo.