The Accidental Jurist

Leonard Peltier. Stephen Miles. Now the witness who might break the Ramsey case. Itís no wonder Lee Hill thinks he needs to pack a pistol.

Just when it appeared there might be a large settlement in the Rincon case, then-California governor Pete Wilson reached an agreement that in effect rendered the lawsuit moot. Hill was out all of his legal fees and most of his expenses from eighteen months of work. It forced him into bankruptcy and pretty much ended his second marriage, which, in part due to his deepening commitment to Indian issues, had been on the rocks. Much of the reason for the failure, he admits, was his fault.

Hill's next opportunity to fight for justice for American Indians arrived when he received a call from Bobby Costilla, the head of California AIM, who asked if he'd be willing to get involved in the case of Leonard Peltier, the man he'd first heard of nearly twenty years earlier. Despite flimsy evidence and questionable government witnesses, Peltier had been convicted of murdering two FBI agents. He was serving two life sentences.

In September 1994, Peltier called Hill at home. Hill felt an immediate rapport with the man who had become a symbol for Indian rights and whose case had attracted the support of celebrities in both the entertainment and legal fields, including William Kunstler, the brilliant legal tactician who had defended the Chicago Seven.

Lee Hill
Lee Hill
Action figures: Steven Seagal and Lee Hill are working on movie and television projects.
Action figures: Steven Seagal and Lee Hill are working on movie and television projects.

Hill had to admit that he knew little about Peltier's case. Peltier asked him to read Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, written about his case, and then, if he was so moved, to visit him at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Soon afterward, Hill flew to Kansas. The first thing Peltier said to him was, "I did not kill those agents."

"Even if you did, you were not convicted lawfully," Hill replied. Before he left, he asked Peltier to sign his copy of the book.

Hill moved back to Boulder in 1995. He continued to work on Peltier's case, becoming an executive member of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Much of the work consisted of protecting Peltier from those who tried to attach themselves to his cause for personal gain -- whether it was a plethora of fake wives who all claimed to be the real Mrs. Leonard Peltier or hucksters collecting money for the "defense fund." Other work involved trying to come up with new strategies to win a new trial, or at least examine the more than 5,000 pages of documents the U.S. government has refused to turn over in the case.

Through his work with Peltier, Hill met many celebrities, including Steven Seagal, who called to inquire about obtaining the rights to make a movie on Peltier's life in which he wanted to play the starring role. That created debate among Peltier's supporters on whether such rights should be granted to a non-Indian. At first Hill thought not, but the more he got to know Seagal and saw that his intentions were honorable, the more he thought the actor's star power would create a wider audience for Peltier's story (those negotiations are ongoing). But the Peltier case was another taking up lots of time and resources spent without pay.

Hill's home, a three-story Boulder townhouse, is a mess. Dishes are piled up in the sink, even though Yoo says they haven't eaten dinner there in a year. Clothes appear to have been left where their owners stepped out of them. There's plenty of artwork around, paintings and photographs, much of it in lieu of payment from their clients. "I have this nightmare of dying like Mozart, impoverished in a house full of treasures," Hill says, then laughs. "Only I don't have any treasures."

Except for those things that are treasures to him -- like his books, most of them signed by their authors. Hill pulls out In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. "Lee, it was my pleasure meeting you," Peltier wrote. "I hope we can work together in success for not only my freedom, but also of our Indian Nations." It was the way Peltier emphasized the our that made Hill realize that he belonged.

And he's continued to litigate on American Indian issues. In September, Hill filed a lawsuit against Naropa for "perpetuating cultural genocide" by sponsoring a Native American-studies program in which non-Indians performed sacred rituals in the classroom. The college had advertised the class as being taught by a traditional spiritual Lakota leader.

Hill represents former Naropa student Lydia White Calf and her husband, Royce. Royce White Calf, who is full-blood Lakota, says that when Lydia, who is white, complained, Naropa officials told him he was ignorant of his people's own spiritual practices. A lawyer cousin of Lydia's sent them to Hill, who Royce says impressed him initially because of his involvement with Peltier. The suit alleges fraud, harassment, negligent hiring, breach of duty, defamation and outrageous conduct.

At the heart of the dispute is the contention that the Naropa instructor, who went by the name Eagle Cruz, was not only not qualified to teach the class, use sacred items such as eagle feathers or lead sacred prayers and songs, he was not Indian as he claimed. Cruz told several stories. One was that he was part Lakota, another was that he had been "adopted" by Lakota medicine man Vernal Cross -- until the family of Cross, who had died, said that was untrue. Then Cruz said he was Yaqui Indian and had been born in 1948 and raised on the Yaqui reservation. The only problem there was that the Yaqui reservation wasn't established until some fifteen years ago, and even then, tribal authorities had no one by his name enrolled on the tribal records.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help