This Saturday will mark 40 years since political prisoner Leonard Peltier was arrested and charged with the deaths of two federal agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Since that time, new information has come to light about improprieties in the government’s handling of the case, and the movement for Native American rights has made great gains in fighting discrimination and building recognition of the long U.S. history of colonial violence. Yet Leonard Peltier remains in jail, now 71 years old and experiencing multiple serious health issues, most recently an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Eight years before Peltier’s arrest, activists formed the American Indian Movement (AIM) to promote Native American treaty rights and sovereignty and oppose discrimination, racism, and government violence. The government’s response to AIM was brutal. Agents ended the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by AIM and other Native American activists in 1973 with a full-on military assault, killing two people. While the U.S. government never accounted for its actions that day, CCR defended AIM activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means against charges of conspiracy and assault arising from the incident, successfully winning a dismissal. The case was marked by prosecutorial misconduct – the judge remarked that “the waters of justice have been polluted” – which would prove to be a recurring trend in government cases against AIM political activists.
AIM’s activities occurred amidst the height of the FBI’s since-discredited COINTELPRO program targeting political activists from a wide array of civil rights and leftist groups. They also took place in the context of large-scale militarization, and harassment and intimidation of Native American activists by the FBI and government-supported paramilitaries who called themselves the “GOON squad.” This resulted in the deaths of dozens of activists in the three years following the occupation of Wounded Knee, known as the “Reign of Terror.” For decades, these deaths, including one that occurred at the same time as the shooting of the agents at Pine Ridge, remained unresolved. On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents in unmarked vehicles traveled onto Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Both were killed in a shoot-out involving a group of people on the reservation. No one suspected of participation in the shoot-out was apprehended that day, but the FBI began a resource-intensive, invasive, and heavily-critiqued investigation to achieve a resolution of the case.
At their trial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, CCR co-founder William Kunstler defended Darrell Butler and Robert Robideau, who were accused of the shooting alongside Peltier. They were acquitted due to the government’s failure to prove they had fired the fatal shots. It was also determined that, in the context of the Reign of Terror on Pine Ridge, the exchange of gunfire with the agents constituted an act of self-defense. After Peltier was extradited from Canada, his case on the same charges was moved to Fargo, North Dakota under a conservative judge who prevented him from introducing some of the same evidence of the climate on Pine Ridge that had freed Butler and Robideau.
Peltier’s 1977 conviction was fraught with misconduct, including suppression of potentially exculpatory evidence, recantation of witness affidavits, improper tactics in achieving his extradition, and the use of undercover informants who had infiltrated AIM. The practices engaged in during the investigation have been broadly recognized as illegitimate: several appeals court judges chastised the prosecution during argument or in written opinions for the FBI’s “improper conduct” and “clear abuse of the investigative process.” Kunstler joined other attorneys in defending Peltier in his 1978-1993 criminal appeals, decrying the evidence suppression, coerced and false affidavits, witness intimidation, and generally bungled FBI investigation that had led to Peltier’s arrest. Over the course of the appeals process, the prosecutor shifted from asserting that Peltier killed the agents single-handedly to admitting in court, “but we can’t prove who shot those agents.” Still, Peltier’s appeals and new trials were unsuccessful in overturning his conviction. Because Peltier has always maintained that he did not kill the agents, he continues to be denied parole.
CCR sent a letter to President Obama on February 2, 2016, arguing that he should consider principles of compassionate release and international human rights norms around “conditional release” (parole) in deciding on Peltier’s petition for executive clemency. The letter reminds President Obama of the commitments he has made to Native Americans; as a presidential candidate in 2008 he gave a speech at the Crow Indian Reservation and was adopted into the Crow Nation, and he later made his first visit to a reservation as President in 2014 at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, where he affirmed many of his promises to improve relations with Native Americans. As Native Americans continue to experience staggering rates of police brutality, health issues, poverty, and sexual and intimate partner violence; disproportionate discipline in schools; poisoning of land and natural resources with toxic materials; frequent failures of the government to prosecute crimes committed against them by non-Natives; and continuing trauma from the effects of cultural genocide through initiatives like boarding schools, a simple gesture Obama could make to promote healing and justice would be to release Leonard Peltier.
As numerous human rights defenders, Nobel laureates, members of Congress, international authorities, and even a judge who oversaw Peltier’s criminal appeals agree: It’s time to free Leonard Peltier.
If you would like to contact President Obama to encourage him to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier, see the guidelines available on his support site and sign the public petition. You can also join one of the international events recognizing the 40th anniversary of Peltier’s arrest this week, including an event this Saturday in New York City.