It Is Long Past Time To Parole Leonard Peltier

[Wikimedia Commons]

Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier has been in prison for nearly 50 years for a crime he has maintained he did not commit and for which there is no evidence to prove that he did (outside of things we now know were prosecutorial misconduct). That crime was the shooting death of two FBI agents during a shootout involving nearly 40 people at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975.

Yesterday, at the age of 79 and in failing health, Peltier is up for parole for the first time in a decade. If anything in the whole world made any kind of sense, or if we lived in a nation where a larger portion of people actually cared whether or not the people we keep in prison or the people we kill were actually guilty or not, he would be set free. But we don’t, so chances are pretty slim.

The story starts, really, back in 1973 when members of the Oglala Lakota Nation and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, demanding a renegotiation of contracts with the federal government and the removal of tribal chairman Dick Wilson, who many saw as corrupt and also a stooge for the US government. The occupation and resulting siege from the FBI and the US Marshals Service lasted for 71 days, and although it wasn’t successful, it did draw a lot of attention to the causes that they were fighting for and their mistreatment at the hands of the government. Notably, actor Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Academy Award for The Godfather and instead had activist Sacheen Littlefeather come up and give a speech in which she referenced the conflict.

Following the Wounded Knee occupation, tensions between indigenous people and the federal government grew — the US government declared AIM an extremist organization and attempted to infiltrate the group and spy on members, who continued fighting to renegotiate treaties and establish their own sovereignty. Wilson’s personal militia, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs), also regularly attacked activists.

On June 26, 1975, it all blew up. Almost literally. FBI special agents Ronald Williamsand Jack Coler came to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation looking for a young man named Jimmy Eagle who was wanted in connection with assaulting a couple of ranch hands and stealing a pair of cowboy boots. They started following a red truck driven by Peltier, a high-level leader of AIM, who was accompanied by Norman Charles, and Joe Stuntz — supposedly! Peltier says he was not in the truck and only came over to the scene when he heard shooting. At some point, the vehicle stopped and the two factions started shooting at one another, though it’s not known who fired first.

What ended up occurring was a chaotic shootout involving some 40 people. Williams and Coler were killed, shot in the head at point-blank range. Joe Stuntz was also killed.

Peltier was one of the three people arrested for the killing of the FBI agents. Robert Robideau and Darrelle “Dino” Butler were the other two, although they were later “found to have acted in self-defense.”

There were three major pieces of evidence used to convict Peltier.

  1. He was physically there.

  2. A ballistics expert said the bullets could have come from his gun.

  3. A mentally challenged young woman named Myrtle Poor Bear signed affidavits saying she was Peltier’s girlfriend at the time and personally saw him shoot the agents in the head.

Poor Bear would later recant her testimony, saying the FBI officers pressured her to do it, and admitting that she did not know Peltier and wasn’t even there during the shooting (as Peltier and others had said). When she tried to testify to this at Peltier’s trial, the judge deemed her too mentally incompetent to do so. She would later sign another affidavit against another Native American, for another murder, also claiming that she was his girlfriend.

The ballistics expert had initially done a more accurate test on the bullet casing that determined it did not come from Peltier’s gun, but this information was not made available to the defense at the time. It was only after he did a less accurate test that he was able to testify that it could have come from Peltier’s gun.

Via Native Web:

Specifically, at the trial, the FBI ballistic expert, Evan Hodge, testified that he had conducted an extractor mark test, and compared Leonard Peltier’s AR-15 rifle with the .223 bullet casing found near the agents’ car, and found them to match. Hodge based his testimony on a test -performed in February 1976, some six months after receiving the casing and over four months after receiving the gun alleged to have been Mr. Peltier’s. However, an FBI ballistic report showed that Mr. Hodge had tested the cartridges far earlier, in October 1975, and found that none of them matched the weapon alleged to be Mr. Peltier’s. At trial, however, defense counsel was not permitted to tell the jury that the test showing that the gun and the casing were incompatible was performed first, and that the test -“finding” that the rifle and casing matched, was in fact performed much later as the prosecution put together its case.

Also, at trial, the red truck the FBI agents said they were following became a red and white van, which they could link back to Peltier.

That’s it. That’s the whole case. That is what this man has been in prison for 50 years for.

Pretty much everyone! Particularly everyone whose name is or was synonymous with being a good person, whether or not that is actually the case, like Mother Teresa, the pope, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Coretta Scott King, and more. Peltier also has the support of Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai’i), Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), and Peter Welch (D-Vermont), all of whom signed a letter earlier this year urging Attorney General Merrick Garland to agree to clemency for Peltier.

But more importantly, perhaps, both the judge and the prosecuting US attorney in this case believe it was handled wrong, decided improperly and that Peltier should not have ever been convicted in the first place. Prosecutor James H. Reynolds has written letters for years, starting in the Obama administration, begging for clemency and stating that Peltier’s “conviction and continued incarceration is a testament to a time and system of justice that no longer has a place in our society.”

He wrote:

With time, and the benefit of hindsight, I have realized that the prosecution and the continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is injust. We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation. As a result we shifted our stance on the theories of guilt throughout the prosecution and appeal. First, we pursued a “deliberate ambush“ theory against Mr. Peltier’s co-defendants (who were found not guilty by reason of self-defense). Then, in the prosecution of Mr. Peltier, we pursued a “deliberate execution“ theory. Finally, on appeal, we pursued the theory that Mr. Peltier was an “accomplice“ under an aiding and abetting theory, notwithstanding the fact that his co-defendants were found to have acted in self-defense.

The final theory on which Mr. Peltier’s conviction now rests is that he was guilty of murder simply because he was present with a weapon at the Reservation that day. However, Mr.Peltier has been labeled, and more importantly was sentenced, as a “cold blooded murderer“  based on a theory that we were forced to drop on appeal. He has served more than 46 years on the basis of minimal evidence, a result that I strongly doubt would be upheld in any court today.

That is highly unusual. Prosecutors are often known to hang onto their wrongful convictions for decades after it is abundantly clear that they screwed up.

Mainly the FBI and people who don’t know anything about his story other than “he killed two FBI agents.” FBI Director Chris Wray put out a statement demanding that Peltier be kept behind bars.

“We must never forget or put aside that Peltier intentionally murdered these two young men and has never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions,” he wrote, failing to acknowledge that it would be odd for someone who maintains their innocence to express remorse.

The FBI Agents Association also sent a letter to the parole board stating that freeing him would be a “cruel act of betrayal.”

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Leonard Peltier is a political prisoner, plain and simple. It is an embarrassment to our nation that he is still behind bars. As his health is failing, this, barring clemency from President Joe Biden, is likely his last chance to get out.

It would be incredible if that were to happen. I’m not holding my breath for the next 21 days while it is decided, but it sure would be nice.


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Robyn Pennacchia