Dear President Obama:
You’re always telling us Americans that we need to do something because it’s “the right thing to do.” You’ve been saying this since you became president: about passing national health care, about extending tax credits for clean energy companies, about making the tuition tax credit permanent, about the DREAM Act. Of course lately you’ve been saying we need to intervene in Syria. Why? Because it’s “the right thing to do.”
So let me ask you this: How would you deal with an innocent man who has been in federal prison for more than 27 years for a murder he didn’t commit, a guy who was convicted along with ten other guys (all of whom have been free for decades), a guy who can’t get paroled because he refuses to express remorse—because he never committed the crime in the first place? This guy—his name is Richard LaFuente—has only one hope to go home to be with his daughters and grandchildren, and that is the leader of the free world, a man with the legal power to grant mercy to people in federal prison. A man who likes to talk about doing the right thing. That man, of course, is you. Richard just filed a petition for executive clemency on August 6, for the commutation of his life sentence. I urge you to read it—and to grant it.
Let me tell you about Richard. He’s a half-Sioux half-Mexican American from West Texas who (with his brother-in-law John Perez) went to visit relatives at the Devil’s Lake reservation in North Dakota back in 1984. While they were there, on August 28, a former cop named Eddie Peltier was found dead on a rural road, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run. Two and a half years later Richard was arrested for the murder of Peltier. Law enforcement had found witnesses who said that on August 28 there had been a big party that led to a big fight; four said they had seen a mob of men beat Peltier, while one said she had seen Richard, with assistance from John, run Peltier over. Richard and the other ten went on trial for murder. There was no physical evidence and all of the men but one had an alibi, but the four witnesses carried the day. All eleven were found guilty, and the two Texans got the longest sentences: twenty years for John and life for Richard.
Soon, though, the truth began to leak out. There had been no party that night. There had been no fight. Two of the witnesses recanted and said they had been threatened by James Yankton, a Bureau of Indian Affairs cop whose family ran the rez. Within four years of the verdict, the convictions of nine of the defendants had been thrown out because of insufficient evidence. In 1999 John was paroled. Only Richard remains in prison—in a federal facility in Fort Worth.
But I’m not the only one who thinks so. The murder victim’s own mother, brother, and sister have testified to parole officials that LaFuente didn’t kill their son and brother; the sister has come to Texas twice to testify at hearings. Two federal courts ruled that LaFuente’s trial was unfair and recommended he get a new one, but both were later overruled (which one judge labeled a “gross miscarriage of justice”). The newspaper that covered the trial 27 years ago recently called the verdict “scandalous.”
Richard is 55 now. He has had a lot of hearings over the past quarter century at which he could have walked free—all he had to do was express guilt and remorse. He has refused–because he won’t express remorse for something he didn’t do. He has been denied parole six times now; at his latest hearing, three months ago, he again refused to show remorse. As you might guess, he was again denied parole.
Mr. President, you hear a lot about how harsh and screwed up the Texas criminal justice system is. But compared to the federal system, we Texans live in Shangri-La. Our system is responsive to criticism; flaws get fixed, the wrongly convicted often get freed. Perhaps you’ve read about Anthony Graves or Michael Morton, two men who were recently released from state prisons after the absurd injustices of their murder convictions were revealed. Charges were dismissed; investigations were brought.
But the federal system is a confusing, unresponsive bureaucracy. And at the top is you. For some strange reason, for a guy who talks so much about doing the right thing, you have rarely exercised the power of mercy, your ability to pardon inmates or commute their sentences. In fact, you’ve used it less than any modern president: you have granted 39 pardons and only one commutation. George W. Bush gave out 200 pardons and commutations; Nixon granted 60 commutations alone! Your only commutation so far was for a drug dealer, and you cut her sentence from 22 years to 10.
Julie Jonas, Richard’s attorney with the Innocence Project of Minnesota, first petitioned for clemency back in 2008; you turned him down on November 19, 2011. I implore you to read his second petition. Besides having new information (including a deposition from a member of the Yankton family who says he repeatedly heard his aunt talk about how her brothers killed Peltier), it has letters from various people who know Richard, from Todd Trotter, who is making a documentary about him, to Richard’s children. Like you, Richard has two daughters. One of them, LaDena, wrote a heartbreaking letter. “If my father was to be released today,” she writes, “he has a home and a job waiting for him in Lubbock, Texas. We have a lot of time lost between us but please give us the opportunity to start making this time up. My father has four grandchildren and I know he would love to be there and be a part of their childhood since he did not have that opportunity to do that with my sister and I.”
Mr. President, Richard has been a model prisoner. He has not had one disciplinary infraction in 27 years. He has learned various trades, from welding to silk-screening. He is one of the most positive individuals I have ever met, even with the hell he has gone through. Every time I talk on the phone with Richard, I am awed by his attitude and his belief that justice will be done. Jonas, who has been working with inmates for many years, says this about Richard: “I have never met an individual with as much conviction and courage, nor have I ever worked on such a compelling case for innocence.”
Richard has been stuck in a nightmare for half his life now. First he was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Then he was stuck in a bizarre judicial Catch-22: The only way he could get out was to express guilt and show remorse, but how can he express guilt or show remorse for something he didn’t do? His refusal to do so is one of the few shreds of dignity Richard has left. He’s not going to give it up. You, I’m afraid, are his only hope to spend his remaining years with his family.
Please, Mr. President, do the right thing. Commute Richard LaFuente’s sentence. Let him go home.