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Why is Leonard Peltier Still in Prison?
Leonard Peltier is an innocent man who has spent over 33 terrible years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
In 1977, he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the deaths of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, who were killed in a gunfight on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota on June 26, 1975.
Peltier’s case is one of the awful travesties of the U.S. justice system–standing alongside those of Sacco and Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Like these individuals, Peltier is rightly considered by his supporters to be a political prisoner–because his prosecution and conviction was driven solely by his participation in the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s. Since his conviction in 1977, he has been a victim–repeatedly–of the racism of the U.S. criminal justice system.
But Leonard Peltier is not simply a victim. He is also a fighter.
Leonard and his friends, family, allies and supporters have been courageous and relentless in speaking out for justice in Leonard’s case, even when faced with government repression for doing so. And Peltier has stood up for justice not only in his own case, but on behalf of indigenous people and all victims of war, poverty and racism.
In his memoir Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance, he wrote:
The destruction of our people must stop! We are not statistics. We are people from whom you took this land by force and blood and lies…You practice crimes against humanity at the same time that you piously speak to the rest of the world of human rights! America, when will you live up to your own principles?
Views such as these, along with the work he has done setting up scholarships for Native American children, among other efforts, explains why Peltier was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and the 2004 presidential candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party.
Our society would benefit enormously from having someone like Leonard living as a free man. Instead, at age 64, he languishes in prison while in poor health. Earlier this year, he was brutally beaten; he has been repeatedly denied proper medical care.
On July 28, Peltier will appear at his first full parole hearing in 15 years. Now is the time to rebuild momentum around his case and demand his release and exoneration–and put his name back at the center of the fight against the criminal justice system.
* * *
PELTIER WAS indicted along with two others in the 1975 shootout at the Jumping Bull property. His co-defendants, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, represented by famed radical attorney William Kunstler, were acquitted on the basis of self-defense.
Humiliated by the not-guilty verdict for Robideau and Butler, the government went after Peltier with a vengeance. It lied, cheated and slammed the book on any sense of justice to ensure a conviction.
The Feds used three perjured affidavits to get Peltier extradited from Canada, to which he had escaped. During the trial itself, Peltier faced an all-white jury in North Dakota, where racism against Native Americans and hostility to AIM was palpable. The jury was unnecessarily sequestered and deliberately made to feel vulnerable by the judge. This same judge wouldn’t allow Leonard’s attorney’s to argue self-defense.
Assistant U.S. attorney Lynn Crooks didn’t produce any witnesses who could identify Peltier as the person who killed the agents. The government presented false evidence–the claim that only Peltier had the type of gun that killed the agents–and also concealed evidence showing that the gun they claimed Peltier used didn’t match the bullet casings found near the agent’s bodies.
Documents uncovered later through Freedom of Information Act requests revealed, among other things, that the judge met with the FBI before the trial began, and that the legal defense committee that emerged out of the Wounded Knee occupation had been infiltrated.
None of these facts are really contested by the federal government. In fact, at an appellate hearing in the 1980s, the government attorney conceded: "We had a murder, we had numerous shooters, we do not know who specifically fired what killing shots…we do not know, quote unquote, who shot the agents."
But the government was hell-bent on convicting Peltier in order to crush AIM, which was founded in 1968 and reached its high point in cities and on reservations in the mid-1970s.
AIM clearly took inspiration from the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s as well as struggles for national liberation around the world. Its profile and credibility was heightened by several bold actions, including in 1972, when it mobilized 1,400 people for a three-day occupation of the border town of Gordon, Neb., in response to the murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder by white racists.
Peltier became a leading activist in AIM, participating in the occupation of Fort Lawton in Seattle and the "Trail of Broken Treaties" caravan to Washington, D.C., which resulted in AIM’s stunning occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building.
According to Like a Hurricane author Paul Chaat Smith:
[T]his sudden rebellion in Washington, D.C., had catastrophic possibilities that bordered on the surreal. Five days before the presidential election, Indian revolutionaries held a government building six blocks from the White House, vowing to die rather than surrender. The casualties, if it came to that, would likely include the Trail’s scores of children and old people.
In 1973, in response to the rampant fraud, intimidation and violence of Oglala Sioux tribal government President Dick Wilson, traditional people and civil rights activists on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota invited AIM to come help them fight Wilson.
This resulted in the famous 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, where AIM demanded Wilson’s ouster and Congressional hearings on treaty rights. The occupation drew broad support and was headline news, creating an outpouring of support for the Lakota people.
But it was viciously attacked by the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and Dick Wilson’s heavily armed "GOONs" (Guardians of the Oglala Nation). Within hours, 200 agents surrounded and blockaded the town. The army sent in armored personnel carriers, fighter jets flew overhead, and 500,000 rounds of ammunition were fired into Wounded Knee, killing Frank Clearwater and Buddy Lamont.
Coming out of Wounded Knee, AIM and its supporters were targets in a two-sided war–on one side, by the FBI in the form of its overall COINTELPRO program against radicals, and on the other, a reign of terror by BIA police, other federal law enforcement and GOONs. Between 1973 and 1976, the per capita murder rate on Pine Ridge was the highest in the country–170 per 100,000 people, or around 20 times the U.S. average.
This was the context of the famous "Incident at Oglala."
On June 26, 1975, two unmarked cars chased a red truck onto the Jumping Bull property on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Across the field from the road was the compound where the Jumping Bull family lived, and where AIM members and families had set up camp. When the agents, who hadn’t identified themselves, then began firing on the ranch, Peltier and others, who were defending the compound against violence, fired back, not knowing who the men were or what they wanted.
Within minutes, more than 150 FBI SWAT team members, BIA police and GOONs had surrounded the ranch. FBI agents Coler and Williams, as well as one Lakota man, Joe Killsright Stuntz, were killed. No one has ever been convicted of Joe Stuntz’s death, and in fact, only one major newspaper even mentioned it at the time.
The largest FBI manhunt in history followed, culminating in the arrest of Robideau, Butler and Peltier.
* * *
SINCE THE time of his conviction, countless numbers of people have come to believe in Leonard Peltier’s innocence and to demand his freedom.
In the late 1990s, the documentary Incident at Oglala and Peter Matthiessen’s book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse became popular, and led to a heightened awareness about Peltier’s case. Everyone from the Indigo Girls to Rage Against the Machine has recorded songs about him.
Many supporters hoped that former President Bill Clinton, who stopped at the Pine Ridge reservation during his 1999 poverty tour, would grant Leonard executive clemency. But Clinton succumbed to pressure from police and FBI agents, and refused to free Leonard–saving his generosity for wealthy benefactors like Mark Rich.
After Clinton came eight long years of the Bush administration’s many abuses of the U.S. Constitution–including more cases of political persecution, like that of Dr. Sami Al-Arian. Unfortunately, this has meant that Peltier’s case has been somewhat pushed to the margins of political consciousness.
But no longer. Justice is long overdue. We must include the fight for Leonard’s freedom in a bigger struggle to free all political prisoners and push back against the injustices of the criminal justice system.
What You Can Do
What you can do Leonard Peltier will face his first full parole hearing in 15 years on July 28, and his supporters are calling for a campaign of pressure. Mail letters of support to: U.S. Parole Commission, 5550 Friendship Blvd. #420, Chevy Chase, MD 20815-7286.
Visit the Free Leonard Peltier Website for more information on the case, sample letters to send to the parole commission and updates on other activities.
MICHELLE BOLLINGER lives in Washington, DC.