"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

A Steadfast Denial of Guilt, Backed by Victim’s Kin

Richard LaFuente has had plenty of opportunities to leave federal prison and go back to Plainview, Tex. All he had to do was confess to a murder on the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, for which he was convicted in 1986, and show a little remorse.

Richard LaFuente, convicted in the 1983 killing of a police officer, could get out of prison if he showed remorse and confessed.
The first time he refused was at a 1994 court hearing. “I can’t show remorse,” he told his lawyer. “I won’t ask forgiveness for something I didn’t do.” He went back to his cell. For the next 17 years, at six parole hearings (the latest in June 2011), Mr. LaFuente refused to confess and show remorse, and each time he was sent back to his cell.

Julie Jonas has had plenty of opportunities to walk away from Mr. LaFuente’s case. Ms. Jonas is the managing attorney for the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which has been working on behalf of Mr. LaFuente. She has represented Mr. LaFuente, 54, since 2004, along with hundreds of other prisoners who have claimed they were innocent. Mr. LaFuente, she said, is different.

“I don’t think I have met one who would turn down a deal to get out of prison after eight years in a federal penitentiary, much less one who would continue to deny his guilt even though it meant his parole would be denied after serving 25 years in prison,” Ms. Jonas said. “The system keeps asking him to apologize for something he did not do, and his conscience won’t let him do that.”

Lawyers who work for innocence projects are a particular breed of optimist, and Ms. Jonas has tried a number of ways to get relief for her client. Her latest effort is a second petition for executive clemency, which she will be able to file on Nov. 19, one year after the first (which was filed in 2008) was denied. Clemency, in the form of a commutation of sentence, is extremely difficult to obtain. President Obama has granted one in four years in office. (George W. Bush granted 11 and Bill Clinton 61.)

Ms. Jonas plans to emphasize that Mr. LaFuente, who is half Mexican-American, half Sioux, has been a model prisoner with no disciplinary infractions. He is a father and grandfather. He has a job and a home waiting for him. “He’s worthy,” Ms. Jonas said. “Beside all that, he’s innocent.”

Mr. LaFuente was 25 in the summer of 1983 when he and his brother-in-law, John Perez, left Plainview to visit relatives on the Devils Lake reservation. During that time, a former police officer named Eddie Peltier was found dead on a rural highway, apparently the victim of a hit and run.

In 1985, Mr. LaFuente and Mr. Perez, who had returned to Texas, as well as nine local American Indians, were arrested in Officer Peltier’s murder after four witnesses said they had seen a mob beat him at a party. One swore she had seen Mr. LaFuente, with Mr. Perez’s help, run the officer over with his El Camino. There was no physical evidence, and every defendant but one had an alibi. Nonetheless, all 11 were found guilty. The two Texans were given the longest sentences: 20 years for Mr. Perez and life for Mr. LaFuente.

Soon, though, details began to emerge that conflicted with court testimony. Stories about the party and the fight turned out to be fabrications. Two witnesses recanted and said they had been threatened by James Yankton, a police officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. By 1989, the convictions of nine of the defendants had been overturned for insufficient evidence. Mr. Perez was paroled in 1999. Only Mr. LaFuente remains in prison, steadfastly maintaining his innocence.

Twice a federal court has ruled that Mr. LaFuente should be given a new trial because the first one was unfair; both decisions were overruled. The victim’s own mother, brother and sister have told parole officials that they believe Mr. LaFuente is innocent. “I have never worked on a case where the victim’s family was certain the wrong man was in prison,” Ms. Jonas said.

Hollywood has taken notice. This year the story came to the attention of Todd Trotter, a Los Angeles television writer and documentary filmmaker. He began tracking down police and F.B.I. files and found a recording of a woman who claimed she had witnessed Mr. Peltier’s murder. The closer Mr. Trotter looked, the more Mr. LaFuente’s story seemed to be a classic tale of wrongful conviction.

Mr. Trotter talked with two dozen people involved in the case, asking them to agree to be interviewed on camera. He was granted permission to use the Robbie Robertson song “Coyote Dance” in the promotional video. He came up with a title, “Incident at Devils Lake.” All he needed was money to start filming. So in September he started a campaign at Kickstarter.com to raise start-up financing for the documentary. If he is successful — he is aiming for $50,000 in pledges by Wednesday — he hopes to start production early next year.

Mr. Trotter has had some fund-raising help from an unlikely source: the victim’s sister, Andrea Peltier. Nearly every day since Oct. 19, Andrea has stood outside the Devils Lake Walmart, holding a large sign bearing the word “fund-raising” and photos of her brother and Mr. LaFuente. She asks shoppers to donate to the film, and has collected more than $1,000.

“I stand out here no matter how cold it is,” Ms. Peltier said by cellphone. “I want justice for my brother. It’s been too long. Eddie’s spirit won’t be able to cross over until the right ones are caught. And I want to get Richard out of prison. He didn’t do it. He had nothing to do with it.”