FARGO - Lawyers for imprisoned American Indian activist Leonard Peltier argued Wednesday for his release, saying the federal government did not have the right to try him for crimes that occurred on a South Dakota reservation.
Peltier, 60, is serving life in prison for the killing of two FBI agents during a 1975 standoff on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was convicted in Fargo in 1977 and has filed numerous appeals.
"He's amazing at holding out hope," defense attorney Barry Bachrach said.
Peltier's lawyers claim his sentence is illegal because the federal court had no jurisdiction on the reservation.
"The court had no federal offense before it, and it had no federal jurisdiction," Bachrach told U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson.
Assistant U.S. attorney Scott Schneider said the claim is frivolous.
"The law applies everywhere to everyone, regardless of the site," Schneider said.
A ruling is expected within two months, Bachrach said.
Peltier was convicted of killing Ronald Williams and Jack Coler during a standoff on the reservation and received two consecutive life sentences.
The agents were shot in the head at close range, and their bodies were left on a dirt road.
Supporters have said Peltier was treated unfairly because of his political activism.
Peltier, who has a history of diabetes and recently suffered a stroke, listened by speakerphone from federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan. He talked briefly after lawyers had finished, saying that the government continues to change its story about his role in the killings.
Bachrach also told the judge that a recent court ruling on sentencing guidelines shows the court exceeded its authority in handing down two consecutive life terms.
About 30 people attended a protest rally outside the courthouse before the hearing. Paul Schultz, a tribal elder from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, told the crowd that Peltier should have gone to tribal court, "if he needed to go to court at all."
"Today, we stand here in solidarity," Schultz said. "One of our brothers is still in the iron house."