Another Tale of Wrongful Conviction?
Richard LaFuente, who was convicted of murder in 1986, has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence for more than twenty years. Now he has some unlikely support in one person—the victim's own sister.
by Michael Hall
Richard LaFuente has had plenty of opportunities to leave federal prison and go back to Plainview. 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. The first time he refused was at a 1994 court hearing. “I can’t show remorse,” he told his attorney. “I won’t ask forgiveness for something I didn’t do.” He went back to his cell. For the next seventeen years, at six parole hearings (the latest in June 2011), LaFuente refused to confess and show remorse, and each time he was sent back to his cell.
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. Perez was paroled in 1999. Only LaFuente remains in prison, steadfastly maintaining his innocence.
Twice a federal court has ruled that 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 LaFuente is innocent. “I have never worked on a case where the victim’s family was certain the wrong man was in prison,” Jonas said.
And now Hollywood has taken notice. Earlier 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 FBI files and found a recording of a woman who claimed she witnessed Peltier’s murder. The closer Trotter looked, the more LaFuente’s story seemed to be a classic tale of wrongful conviction.
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 Robbie Robertson’s “Coyote Song" 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 startup funding for the documentary. If he is successful—he is aiming for $50,000 in pledges by November 14—he hopes to start production early next year.
Trotter has had some fundraising help from an unlikely source: the victim’s sister, Andrea Peltier. Nearly every day since October 19, Andrea has stood outside the Devils Lake Walmart holding a large sign with the word "Fundraising" and photos of her brother and LaFuente. She asks shoppers to donate to the film and has collected more than $1,000 so far.
“I stand out here no matter how cold it is,” she said by cellphone on a cold October morning. “I want justice for my brother,” she said. “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.”
||Truth in Justice