In the ABC-TV movie "Privileged Information," which aired last March, actor Peter Coyote played a lawyer who placed professional principles above personal feelings in defending a client he believed to be guilty.
Now, in a real-life twist, Coyote the private citizen is citing principles over emotion as his reason for organizing tonight's Willie Nelson-Joni Mitchell-Kris Kristofferson concert at the Pacific Amphitheatre. It's a benefit for American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, a convicted killer who Coyote believes is innocent.
Coyote isn't stumping for Peltier, who is serving two consecutive life terms at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, on the issue of his innocence or guilt. Along with other supporters (about 50 members of Congress and numerous religious leaders among them), Coyote argues that Peltier did not get a fair trial before being convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Peltier's attorneys have maintained that the prosecution withheld evidence vital to his defense. Among about 15,000 pages of documents released in 1982 under the Freedom of Information Act was "newly discovered evidence indicating (that the government's key ballistics expert) may not have been telling the truth," a federal appeals court noted last year in denying Peltier's motion for a new trial. Several thousand more pages of documents are still being withheld by the FBI under a national security exemption.
"Leonard Peltier has been a friend of mine for about 18 years, but despite the fact that I'm convinced of his innocence, what really bothered me was that his trial was so full of errors that this case was really a threat to all Americans," Coyote said.
On Friday, Richard T. Bretzing, Southern California's top FBI agent, made his feelings about the benefit known in an unusual letter to Pacific Amphitheatre general manager Steve Redfearn. Bretzing said he was "utterly revolted" at the concert and criticized Nelson, Mitchell and Kristofferson for taking part.
Coyote responded that lobbying for a new trial for Peltier "is not even an anti-FBI issue. If I invented a country, I would invent an FBI. . . . If I wanted to fight terrorists, I'd use the FBI.
"What's interesting to me . . . is that on the one hand, our government brags to the rest of the world that we have a participatory democracy and that we have an enlightened citizenry.
"On the other hand, when citizens begin to come forward and investigate and press for reforms and change, they are discredited by being called activists or liberal or some other such nonsense. In fact, to me, Willie Nelson and Joni Mitchell and Kris . . . are exactly the kind of citizens you'd want in a country: people who are acting on their beliefs."
Bretzing has refused to comment further on his letter condemning the concert.
Coyote, perhaps best known for his role as an unscrupulous district attorney in the 1986 movie thriller "Jagged Edge," got the idea for a benefit concert after meeting a friend of Willie Nelson.
"She said, 'You know Willie is half-Indian--you ought to talk to him about this.' The next thing I know, I'm sitting in a dressing room with Willie. . . . After he listened for a while, he said 'I'm on,' he gave me a personal contribution to Leonard's defense, he brought Kris on, and I think his status and prestige in the business helped me get the rest of the people," Coyote said.
The show is being held in Orange County because Nelson is due for a fall performance in the Southland and had played the Pacific previously and liked it, amphitheater officials said.
Coyote hopes the proceeds, which will go to the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, will be sufficient "to put Leonard's office on stable footing, instead of having to operate hand-to-mouth."
Asked about the possibility of expanding the "Cowboys for Indians" concert into a tour, Coyote responded, "No--my God, I would die." The rigors of organizing even a single concert have been far greater than he expected. "I've never done anything like this before--I don't know how Bill Graham lived past 25."
Considering all the emotional debate that has preceded the concert, Coyote made it a point to ensure fans of the various performers that they won't be in for an evening of speeches or political proselytizing.
"I see this sort of as the '80s equivalent to the society charity balls. People like to dress up and party and dance and play music, so they do it for a worthy cause. This is not so much different. It's just that the average income of the participants is less," he said.
"We're not asking that the audience be political, just come and have a good time. When you go visit someone in hospital, the best thing you can be is healthy and happy. This is a benefit for a guy who is in prison, so I think the best thing we can do is be free."