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LaFuente, convicted of Spirit Lake murder, released on parole

Richard LaFuente, left, was released Thursday, June 5, 2014, from a federal prison after serving almost 28 1/2 years of a life sentence for the 1983 murder of Jerome "Eddie" Peltier, a former Devils Lake, N.D., police officer. Peltier's body was found on Highway 57 near Fort Totten. His family believes LaFuente and 10 other men convicted in the case are innocent. LaFuente is pictured with his lawyer, Julie Jonas of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which is working to clear his name. (Submitted photo)

Convicted of killing a police officer on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, Richard John LaFuente became a free man again Thursday after 28 years behind bars, according to the Minnesota Innocence Project.

Still, much work lies ahead for him and the group, which investigates cases of wrongful convictions; they are still working to overturn his conviction in the murder of Jerome Edward “Eddie” Peltier.

“I’m just really happy that he’s out and that he’s young enough and healthy enough to enjoy it,” said Julie Jonas, managing attorney for the Innocence Project. “He’s shaking with nervousness and ... with excitement.”

She and his daughters greeted him at a Texas federal prison Thursday morning.

LaFuente is now in his mid-50s.

Peltier was an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake tribe and a police officer in Devils Lake when he was killed in 1983. He appeared to have been beaten and run over when his body was found on a reservation highway.

LaFuente, a member of the tribe who lived in Texas, was visiting relatives on the reservation at the time along with his brother-in-law John Perez.

Two and half years later, in 1986, he, Perez and nine other men were convicted in connection with Peltier’s death. The following year, the murder convictions of eight of the 11 were thrown out for lack of evidence, according to court documents. The assault conviction of another man was also thrown out, leaving just LaFuente and Perez.

LaFuente has maintained his innocence even when he was twice told he would be free if he admitted to killing Peltier, according to the Innocence Project.

Perez has also maintained his innocence; he was paroled in 1999.

Since the Innocence Project took on LaFuente’s case 10 years ago, it has appealed the decision to deny LaFuente parole three times, said Jonas. This third time, it was successful.

“I consider it a win,” said Jonas, who also is still trying to overturn LaFuente’s conviction.

After his conviction, witnesses recanted testimony and others said the 11 men had been framed because of a feud, according to the Innocence project. A federal court later denied him a new trial, saying the recanted testimony had no bearing on the verdict and he received a fair trial.

Peltier’s relatives, including his mother have also said he is innocent and called for his release.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project that compiles information on people cleared of charges for which they were wrongfully convicted, 1,371 people in the United States have been exonerated since 1989.

Jonas said she is not sure what the next step for LaFuente is. She said he could apply for presidential pardon when he is eligible in five years.