texasmonthly.com: How did the idea for writing this story come up now?
Michael Hall: I got an e-mail from the Innocence Project of Minnesota about the case last summer. After a little bit of research, I realized this was a great story, one that people in Texas had missed because 1) it essentially takes place in North Dakota and 2) it’s a federal story and nobody hears much about those. I was working on other pieces and so had to put LaFuente off until early this past summer.
texasmonthly.com: Is Texas Monthly the right venue for this story?
MH: I think so. With the caveat already noted that this is, basically, a North Dakota story, Richard LaFuente is as Texan as you get—born and raised in Plainview, half Mexican American and half Sioux American. He and his brother-in-law John Perez, who moved to Plainview when he was in high school, took a trip north to the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation almost on a lark 23 years ago and found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time—and paid a terrible price. It’s a story of the prodigal son who left home to find adventure and never returned, due to great evil and misfortune.
texasmonthly.com: How much of your story is about the Eddie Peltier case, and how much is a portrait of the Fort Totten reservation?
MH: I found that in order to tell the story of the case, I had to immerse myself on the reservation and try to tell its story too. It really is another world up there—the Indians (it’s okay to call them that as well as Native Americans) have a different culture and a different way of looking at everything from land and personal property to the legal system. I discovered that some of the root causes of the injustices in this case were cultural differences—the Indians don’t understand our legal system, and our lawyers, judges, and law-enforcement personnel don’t understand them.
texasmonthly.com: Your story is largely a chronicle of people’s reactions to your attempts to investigate the case. Did this come as a surprise to you?
MH: No, since I knew a lot of my reporting was going to be knocking on doors of total strangers who would probably be a little supicious of my intentions. I was surprised by how open everyone was to me—and most of that was because I had Dwayne Charboneau, who was raised on the rez, with me.
texasmonthly.com: Who is most to blame for hindering Richard LaFuente’s retrial?
MH: Generally speaking, I think most trials are done properly—the right guy is caught and he’s given a proper sentence; most judges would agree with this, though they would take it further and say almost all trials are done right. Hence, courts are generally super-skeptical of giving people new trials. So, when you get in situations where somebody really deserves a new trial, judges usually won’t bend much from a kind of institutional bad-attitude: They refuse to admit the real problems with a case, refuse to accept that their prosecutors and judges could have been schnookered by liars, refuse to admit a terrible mistake was made.
texasmonthly.com: How would this story be different if it didn’t involve an Indian reservation?
MH: I think that attorney David Thompson is essentially correct when he says if this was eleven white kids, it never would have been prosecuted, at least not with that evidence. I do think that if you look at how the witnesses were gathered and how they became the state’s only real evidence—I don’t think that would have been tolerated in most American courts. For all the problems with our criminal justice system, there are fail-safes built in that can and do weed out the bad cases. I think the fact that the court here was dealing with a group of people it has never known how to deal with seriously affected how it and its officers heard the case.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think your story will change life on the rez?
MH: No way. It’s going to take more than a magazine story from Texas—or New York or anywhere else for that matter—to change life on a North Dakota rez.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think your story will help LaFuente gain a retrial or parole?
MH: One can hope. From what I understand, it’s very hard to get any kind of mercy from the federal system; worse since September 11, 2001. But the people who make up the system are human beings, and when they learn all the facts in this story and see Richard as a clearly innocent man caught up in events beyond his control, well, maybe someone will say, He’s suffered enough; let’s set him free.