Family members and American Indian Movement leaders called on students to fight for the freedom of Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a 1975 siege.
The clicks and following silence created a murmur in the full auditorium.
"Um, his time is up. He might call back," a voice said over the same public address system that had carried Leonard Peltier's voice into the auditorium from its origin in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth.
Peltier encouraged about 100 Haskell Indian Nations University students to fight for his clemency during a public forum Tuesday night. His message was upbeat before the phone call clicked off.
"A lot of times people forget he's in prison because he's so cheerful," Lisa Faruolo, co-manager of the Lawrence-based Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, said. "He desperately needs your help."
February will bring Peltier's 18th anniversary in federal prison. He is serving two consecutive life terms, convicted of shooting two FBI agents to death during a 1975 firefight on the Pine Ridge, S.D., reservation. Since his conviction, attorneys and Native American activists have said the FBI coerced witnesses and hid evidence suggesting Peltier's innocence.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for a new trial, saying the suppressed evidence "possibly" would change the outcome but not "probably," which is the legal standard for new trials set by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution this week supporting an executive clemency application being reviewed by President Clinton's pardon attorneys.
In hopes of generating a grass-roots campaign to support the application by a Dec. 15 deadline, the Haskell Student Senate organized Tuesday's forum. Organizers invited Peltier's family members and national leaders of AIM and arranged the telephone call.
"We need you as our future leaders to get involved," Peltier told students. "I know how it is when you're young. You want to concentrate on having fun. ... But we have to make a choice ... to work on society and some of the issues that need to be taken care of."
The aroma of sweet grass wafted through the auditorium. Joe Chasing Horse, a Lakota elder from the Black Hills and one of four delegates to address the United Nations Human Rights Commission recently, opened the forum with a prayer and the sweet grass smoke.
Chasing Horse said he would think of the prophecies of his ancestor, Crazy Horse, whenever he thought of the Peltier case.
"It is told to us through prophecy that a time will come that the Lakota people will be here long after your people have gone," he said. "... To understand the Leonard Peltier case, you have to understand the history of our people, a struggle that began (500 years ago). And that struggle, it continues."
An increasing number of non-Indians have called the conviction bogus and have demanded Peltier's release, said Clyde Bellecourt, a co-founder of the AIM from Minneapolis. Bellecourt said he had been addressing law schools and other forums across the country in recent weeks.
Hollywood actor Robert Redford produced a documentary about the case, called "Incident at Oglala."
"Everywhere I went I found petitions and support groups," Bellecourt said. "I know we will succeed, and I know we will free Leonard Peltier."