Free Peltier — This Time for Real

Leonard Peltier in prison, 1993 (Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: Sipa)

Six years ago, I joined with many around the world in appealing directly to Barack Obama, president of the United States, for executive clemency for Native American activist Leonard Peltier — the longest-serving political prisoner in the USA. Our appeal was for Obama to use his power of the presidency to set Peltier free. The legal case that the government of the USA constructed to put Peltier behind bars back in 1977 was marred through and through by incompetence and fraud, to put it mildly. It was time to let Peltier go and draw a close to that sad chapter of history.

President Obama, needless to say, chose the easy way out. Instead of sparking the inevitable battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that would have resulted over the Peltier case, the president opted to grant a pardon to imprisoned U.S. army whistleblower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning for exposing U.S. military atrocities in Iraq. And Peltier? Obama chose to let him rot in a concrete prison cell for a crime that all evidence indicates Peltier never committed. Shame on Obama.

Now Obama’s former vice president, Joe Biden, is in the White House, and again people around the globe are appealing for the U.S. president to free Peltier once and for all. Will Biden rise up to that challenge? Admittedly, he’s got his hands full at the moment with other critical issues like voter suppression and the ongoing coronvirus pandemic. But the case of an unjustly imprisoned Native American citizen of the USA deserves equal weight on the current president’s list of political priorities. The Ghost of America Past is literally knocking on the White House doors as we speak, demanding some action now from the sitting president while there is still time.

The case centers around what happened on 26 June 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, an Oglala Lakota tribal area in South Dakota. A dozen or so members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a grassroots movement fighting for Native American rights, were camping out at the time on the private property of a Native family there. Early that morning, seemingly out of nowhere, two FBI agents drove their cars onto the property. A shootout ensued, and at the end of it all, the two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, along with AIM member Joe Stuntz, were shot dead.

The FBI immediately tried to pin the killing of the two FBI agents on three AIM members who were at Pine Ridge that day: Darrelle Butler, Robert Robideau and Leonard Peltier. The first two guys were arrested, stood trial together and were found innocent on the basis of self-defense. It was the FBI, not the AIM group, that had provoked the gun battle that day, they maintained in court, and a jury agreed with them.

Having lost that big case, U.S. federal prosecutors now made the third guy, Peltier, the prime scapegoat of the FBI’s efforts to pin the killing on someone — anyone. But Peltier by that time had secretly escaped over the U.S. border into Canada and was in hiding. A massive FBI manhunt for Peltier began.

It helps to remember that this was the era of the FBI’s dreaded COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), a series of secret, illegal projects conducted by the FBI that were based on surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic U.S. political groups that the FBI considered to be “subversive”. Officially, COINTELPRO was started in 1956 by the FBI’s cross-dressing director J. Edgar Hoover and ended in 1971. Unofficially, COINTELPRO was alive and well and still targeting radical groups like AIM to be “neutralized” or destroyed completely, whatever it took.

The FBI was no objective third party in the Pine Ridge shooting case, mind you; it had a vengeful stake involved in finding someone to pay for the deaths of its own two agents that day at Pine Ridge. And that is precisely what the FBI proceeded to do.

So, what was wrong with the FBI’s ensuing murder case against Leonard Peltier? Let us count the ways….

• The bullets didn’t match the gun: The most basic task in any police investigation anywhere involving a shooting death is to establish a clear link between the murder weapon and the suspect(s) in the case. The FBI couldn’t even do that much in the Peltier case. The FBI determined that Peltier used an AR-15 rifle to execute the two FBI agents in cold blood; years later, an independent ballistics investigation found no link whatsoever between the bullet cartridges and the FBI’s alleged murder weapon. None.

• No credible witnesses to the crime: The three Native American witnesses that the FBI had coerced into giving false testimony against Peltier were found to either have been mentally unstable or had later recanted their testimony. The FBI could produce no believable eyewitnesses to the crime.

• The magically changing truck: Just what were the two FBI agents doing that day driving unannounced onto private property in the middle of federally recognized Native reservation lands at Pine Ridge? According to the FBI, its agents were pursuing a red, open-bed pickup truck driven by some suspicious Native American dude who was believed to have stolen a pair of cowboy boots from somewhere. (Yes, folks, the FBI was serious.) But it turned out Peltier, for his part, didn’t drive a red pickup truck at the time; he was driving an orange and white station wagon-type sedan. So, the FBI waved its magic wand, changed its story about the red pickup truck, and voila! The two agents were now following Peltier’s orange-white vehicle instead, the FBI explained. Keystone Kops stuff, all the way.

• False extradition affidavits: Peltier was found by the authorities in Canada and held in jail there for 10 months, while the FBI desperately tried to come up with the proper paperwork that would release Peltier into their custody. Affidavits were eventually drawn up by the FBI listing false testimony from one of their three uncredible witnesses, a Native American woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who was known to be mentally challenged. Canada’s solicitor general at the time, Warren Allmand, later said that those U.S. extradition documents contained false information. And yet, the Canadian government allowed Peltier to be extradited back to the U.S. for prosecution for murder.

The human rights organization Amnesty International had been following Peltier’s case from jump street, and still insists today — 45 years later — that Peltier never had the fair trial he was entitled to and is an innocent man who should be freed. Everyone from Native American state legislators to a prominent politician in Ireland, Gerry Adams, have been calling for Peltier’s release as of late.

Want some other heavyweight names? Former South African president Nelson Mandela, the Tibetan monk the Dalai Lama, the saintly Mother Teresa and the late South African archbishop Desmond Tutu are among those who have petitioned the U.S. government over the years to release Peltier, a political prisoner, from the federal penitentiaries where he has been locked up.

But here’s the real kicker: Even a former judge in one of Peltier’s earlier hearings, the late Gerald Heaney, went on to urge clemency for Peltier. So has one of the former U.S. government attorneys who prosecuted Peltier in the first place, James Reynolds. If even the former prosecutor and the former judge in the Peltier case recognize an injustice when they see it, why is Peltier still being incarcerated as a so-called “cop killer” four decades later? A former federal judge, Kevin Sharp, is Peltier’s current lawyer and he remains sharply critical of the FBI’s fabricated case against Peltier.

U.S. government attorneys have confessed in court on occasion that they don’t actually know who shot those two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975. They are certain the agents were killed by someone in AIM during the shootout, of course, but they don’t know by whom. Native American leader Dennis Banks put it this way during an interview with me in Japan back in 1994: “They say that — because [Peltier] could not use his self-defense theory — two agents were killed, Peltier was there and, please ladies and gentlemen, draw your own conclusions as to who shot the agents. And that’s the government’s theory right now.”

It’s a theory based thoroughly on deception and manipulation on the part of the U.S. government: tampering with material evidence and witnesses, for starters, but also polluting the legal waters so badly that Peltier’s case is almost unrecognizable as anything having to do with true justice.

This year Leonard Peltier turns 78 years old. Most of his life has been spent in one federal prison or another in the USA. Today he is incarcerated under high security at United States Penitentiary, Coleman I in Florida (a state that knows a lot about corruption in the legal system). Peltier continues serving two life sentences for the alleged killing of the two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975. Peltier is in failing health, and some years ago he was attacked by inmates in another prison. He will most likely die in prison in the coming years unless some action is taken to release him.

“I still hold out hope that I can make it home to Turtle Mountain [in North Dakota] while I can still walk out under my own power,” Peltier said in his most recent public message.

And so to help that day hopefully come that much sooner, I lend my voice in 2022 to the chorus of many others in the U.S. and around the world in their urgent demand to U.S. president Biden: Free Leonard Peltier — this time for real. No more right-wing political blustering and no more weak-kneed liberal excuses. Let Peltier, an innocent man according to all the available evidence, return to his family and ancestral homeland to live his final years serving society in whatever ways he can. Bring some closure, at long last, to this episode of the historical “Indian Wars” that continue to plague America in this new century.

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