Right a Terrible Wrong: Why Obama Should Reverse Himself and Pardon Leonard Peltier

If, as reported in the Washington Post, President Obama decided to grant clemency to military whistleblower Chelsea Manning because he felt that the 35-year sentence handed down by a military judge was “nuts,” then what does he think of the life sentence that Native American activist Leonard Peltier is serving?

Yesterday evening, the US Justice Department announced that a clemency petition from Peltier’s attorney Martin Garbus addressed to the president had been denied. In cold language, the letter read: “The application for commutation of sentence of your client, Mr. Leonard Peltier, was carefully considered in this Department and the White House, and the decision was reached that favorable action is not warranted.”

Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist, is serving two life terms after having been convicted in 1977 at a trial that critics say included false statements by federal witnesses, false affidavits, coerced testimony and the withholding of ballistics evidence that could have thrown doubt on the prosecution’s case.

For a good account of the history of his case, and an explanation for why he should unquestionably be released by the president, read this article by Native American writer Kelly Hayes.

Federal prosecutors at trial conceded that they could not prove who shot two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975 during a shoot-out that also left a native American dead, but they insisted that Peltier had “aided and abetted” their shootings.

Now one of the senior federal prosecutors in that case, James Reynolds, in a letter to the outgoing president calling for him to grant clemency to release Peltier, who has already been in jail for 40 years following since his conviction, says, clemency for Peltier, who is sick and 72, would be “in the best interest of justice in considering the totality of all matters involved.”

Reynolds was appointed US attorney in 1976 and in that position supervised the government’s defense of the sentence during Peltier’s long and unsuccessful effort to appeal his conviction, when defense efforts uncovered much of the evidence that showed government misconduct during the original trial.

In his unprecedented call for clemency (no US prosecutor has done such a thing before for a person they helped to convict and keep in prison), Reynolds does not address the issue of whether Peltier is guilty or innocent, but he says it is wrong for Peltier to have had to stay behind bars for as long as he already has, particularly because at worst, he was only an accomplice, not the actual shooter. As Reynolds writes, as an accomplice, “You’re not really participating in the crime yourself. Just because you’re there, you’re going to get nailed.”  Citing Peltier’s motives, Reynolds adds, “He didn’t go out there with the intention to kill anybody. He was trying to protect his people.”

Compare that to Obama’s decision, made simultaneously with his commutation of Manning’s sentence, to his commutation of the sentence of Puerto Rican independence fighter Oscar Lopez Rivera, a member of the radical pro-independence organization calling itself the Armed Forces of National Liberation of FALN. Convicted and sentenced to a total of 60 years in prison for his involvement in a string of bombings, Lopez Rivera was accused of “seditious conspiracy” an of transporting explosives with the intent to kill people and destroy government property, although he was never charged with actually killing anyone.

While the pardons of Manning and Lopez Rivera should be celebrated, it would be the height of hypocrisy for Obama to release Lopez Rivera (whose case is so similar to Peltier’s, both in terms of the charges and the unfairness of their trials), for time served, as he did, and then to leave Peltier in prison, particularly in light of the call by one of his lead prosecutors for his release.

Today is the last day that President Obama has the authority to do the right thing for Leonard Peltier. His office should be deluged by calls and messages demanding that he do it! You can join the effort by going here and taking action. Don’t delay! Time is short!

CounterPunch contributor and founder of ThisCan’tBeHappening!, DAVE LINDORFF co-produced the 2023 Stevee James-directed feature-length documentary film “A Compassionate Spy” on the life of teenage Los Alamos spy Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall, now streaming on Hulu, Youtube, Apple TV, Vudu and Google Play. His latest book,“A Spy for No Country” (Prometheuis Books, 2024) was published in January.