Time to Free Leonard Peltier

March 8th, 2010 at 12:49 pm | 13 Comments |

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Leonard Peltier is now starting his 35th year in prison.

He is 65, and more than half his life has been spent as a prisoner.

Impassioned supporters who argued for justice and his freedom in the past, have grown silent. Bored, frustrated, exhausted, have died, or become involved in other causes. Peltier has faded in memories.

These include Amnesty International, for whom Peltier is still a political prisoner of conscience. His defenders include Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Members of the European Parliament, some 50 Canadian MPs, Hollywood mogul David Geffen, and various Leonard Peltier Defence Committees around the world.

Most have dropped by the wayside.

Robert Redford made a movie about him: Incident at Oglala. The Belgian and Italian parliaments espoused his freedom. They’ve joined the ranks of the silent – not because anything has changed, but because Washington wouldn’t listen.

Somewhat sheepishly, I admit, to having been sidetracked to other issues over the past 15 years. Three times I visited Peltier when he was incarcerated at the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. Since then he has been moved several times – to the federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana; to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; to Canaan, Pa., and today back to Lewisburg. At each, he was jumped, beaten, threatened with death by so-called native inmates when in general population. Provocateurs? Who knows?

Peltier insists his only enemies are the system and Justice Department. In the past I (and others) argued that the case against Peltier was not only flawed, but grotesquely dishonest, unfair and unjust, replete with admittedly perjured testimony and fraudulent evidence by the FBI.

No longer should guilt be an issue – Peltier is not a conventional criminal or felon. Even if one believes he was guilty, he has served enough time and deserves to be free. But no – that’s not the American way in his case.

Peltier was found guilty in the 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents — Ron Williams and Jack Coler – during a range war on the Lakota-Sioux reserve at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, near Wounded Knee where, in 1973, there was a highly publicized 71-day siege.

The Pine Ridge range war was between traditional, back-to-our-roots Indians ,and “progressive” mixed-blood Indians who favored the mining of uranium on Indian land. The militant American Indian Movement (AIM) sided with the traditionalists, while the FBI, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and authorities backed the progressives.

The FBI had labeled AIM a terrorist organization, trained and financed by Castro and the Soviet Union – phony charges, evolving from Cold War paranoia of the day. AIM was (is) an Indian advocacy group.

In a three-year period at Pine Ridge, over 60 murders occurred, not one which was ever investigated, much less solved. On the day Coler and Williams died — chasing a “red pickup truck” into the Jumping Bull community, allegedly driven by Jimmy Eagle who was believed to have stolen some cowboy boots — another young Indian, Joe Stutnz was shot and killed. No investigation was ever held.

Shots were fired and returned. Some 125 bullet holes were found in the two FBI cars. Peltier was one of four Indians charged with murder, but he fled to Alberta where eventually he was turned over to the RCMP. The other three went on trial, where one had charges against him dismissed. The other two, Bob Robideau (since deceased) and Dino Butler, were found not guilty, having fired in self defense. The prosecution’s circumstantial evidence against them was too thin to get a conviction.

At Peltier’s extradition hearing in Vancouver, the FBI produced affidavits by one Mabel Poor Bear, claiming she was Peltier’s girlfriend, and had witnessed him shooting the FBI against at close range.

It subsequently turned out the Poor Bear was a mental case, had never met Peltier, and was nowhere near the murder scene. She later tried to recant, claiming she didn’t even know what Peltier looked like, and claimed the FBI threatened to take away her child if she didn’t sign the affidavit. The trial court judge refused to hear her testimony.

But her fabricated affidavit got Peltier extradited. (Canada’s Solicitor General at the time was Liberal MP Warren Allmand, who supported the extradition, but later became one of the strongest advocates on behalf of Peltier, urging the U.S. to review his case).

At Peltier’s trial, the FBI claimed ballistic tests proved Peltier’s AR-15 rifle had fired the bullets that killed the agents. This was later proved to be false; shell casings at the death scene did not come from Peltier’s rifle.

At his trial Prosecutor Lynn Crooks said categorically that evidence proved Peltier “killed the agents in cold blood.” Later, in appeal, Crooks said he believed Peltier had killed the agents “but we didn’t prove it.” At a parole hearing in 1995, Crooks said if there was a re-trial “the government could not re-convict.”

Parole was rejected because Peltier was the only one they had, even though the court ruled that the FBI’s suppression of evidence “cast strong doubts on the government’s case. The jury heard none of this.

Radical leftwing lawyer William Kunstler (now deceased) represented Peltier at his appeal – and mishandled key evidence which the 8th Circuit Appeal Judge, Gerald Heaney (since deceased), later said would probably have gotten Peltier freed, or a new trial if he, the judge, had known the facts. Kunstler apologized, and urged the judge not to penalize Peltier for his mistake.

I interviewed Judge Heaney who said he had urged then-President Bill Clinton through Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, to have Peltier granted clemency.

Clinton had indicated he’d grant executive clemency to Peltier, but changed his mind when some 500 FBI agents, retirees and families demonstrated outside the White House. Instead, Clinton pardoned Marc Rich who was indicted for illegal oil deals with Iran, and tax evasion.

In their book Game Change, authors John Heileman and Mark Halperin note that billionaire David Geffen had lobbied Clinton to pardon Peltier whom he felt was innocent. When Clinton pardoned Rich, Geffen saw this “as a sign of corrupted values,” and backed Obama for the presidency instead of Hillary Clinton.

In prison, Peltier has had a rough time. At Leavenworth his jaw was atrophying without medical attention – until publicity got him treatment. He is going blind from diabetes, has kidney failure and is susceptible to strokes. He feels occasional beatings by inmates are stage-managed, but says what cannot be taken from him are “my dignity and self-respect . . . even if I die here.”

The law, in 1976, was that inmates with a good record after 30 years should get mandatory release. When Peltier’s 30-year parole hearings came up, he says “five FBI and government witnesses hammered me for over five hours that I should not be released . . . so the parole board gave me another 15 year sentence” (His next parole hearing is in 2024).

Peltier’s appeal of the parole board decision, has already been rejected , despite acknowledgement of his unblemished prison record. Prior to rejection he wrote me: “I am waiting for them to destroy my appeal. I can’t see these same parole commissioners changing their minds, so I know what I’ll get.

“Next I will file in the federal courts, as we have some strong expert issues to file on. I have no doubt we can kick some butt in court, but even if I win, it will take five or 10 years before all the appeal processes take place, so you can consider the 15-year-hit as a death (a slow one) sentence.”

What stands out in Peltier’s case is the vindictiveness of the FBI and the Justice system. With the absence of clear proof of who shot the agents in 1975, the FBI is determined that someone – anyone – must be held responsible. Had Peltier not escaped to Canada, and had he gone on trial with Robideau and Butler, he too would have been acquitted.

Flaws in the case include the FBI changing the “red pickup truck” to a “red and white van” – owned by Peltier; three prosecution witnesses who recanted and claimed intimidation forced their compliance; the jury hearing nothing of the FBI’s suppression of evidence, or its being rebuked by the court; fraudulent ballistic evidence being withheld from the jury; and the FBI’s later admission that “we do not know who killed the agents.”

Author Peter Matthiessen’s book on Peltier’s case, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, was delayed seven years to 1992 because of FBI legal suits against its publication. In it, Matthiessen interviews a “Mr. X” who alleges he was the one who fired the fatal shots into the FBI agents.

I became convinced that Mr. X was Bob Robideau, whom I phoned in Spain and asked him. He equivocated. When I phoned Judge Heaney, of the 8th Circuit Appeal Court, he also implied Robideau might have been the shooter. If so, “he had already been found not guilty of murder and could not be tried again,” said Heaney.

After 34 years in prison, and considering the political and social unrest at the time of the 1975 Pine Ridge Indian wars, Peltier’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant. Simple justice and compassion dictate he should be freed.

Recently, a new generation of Peltier defenders have emerged – one of whom (Kathi Robinson in Manitoba) Peltier has encouraged. Assistant Coordinator of the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee is his niece, Kari Ann Boushee.

Peltier’s eventual release may hinge on clemency from President Barack Obama – presuming Obama has the courage to reject the FBI’s continuing thirst to punish a man they helped frame for murder. Otherwise, Peltier will likely die in custody.

Recent Posts by Peter Worthington



13 Comments so far ↓

  • Carney

    Peltier is and was a left-wing radical and cause célèbre of anti-American nuts worldwide, who admits firing at FBI agents. What on Earth is FrumForum doing with this lunacy? Who’s next, “Mumia Abu-Jamal”? Lori Berenson?

  • mlloyd

    I’m embarrassed to admit that my previous opinion was like that of Carney– “oh, this is a left-wing cause, it’s probably silly.” Thanks for laying out this detailed case.

  • kevin47

    “Even if one believes he was guilty, he has served enough time and deserves to be free.”

    For double homicide? I disagree.

    Either he is guilty (that is my assessment from reading the arguments from both sides), and should remain imprisoned, or he was framed and he should be free. With this sort of case, there is a tendency on the part of advocacy groups to muddle the two possible conclusions, which has the convenient effect of arguing for their desired result.

    If the American way means life sentences for double homicide, I’ll take the American way, thank you.

  • sinz54

    If there’s information that will clear Peltier’s name, let’s see it.

    But I’m not interested in freeing him on the basis on any “clemency.”

    Peltier was found guilty of a double murder.
    He should consider himself lucky he wasn’t executed.
    If he is guilty of that crime, then let him rot.

  • TerryF99

    I agree can’t see any reason to let the guy out unless new evidence is raised to cast doubt on the verdict.

    Life should mean life not 20 or 30 or 40 years. I have no sympathy for murderers, they took a life they should pay with a life, either by execution or by being locked away until death.

  • Independent

    Peter, I think you suffer from the disease that often afflicts well-intentioned but horribly gullible liberal souls. You’d like to think that someone was innocently railroaded and pegged for the murder of two federal agents. Hey, it makes for a great movie, no?

    Whether or not Hollywood made a movie about the killings, whether or not a Hollywood producer thinks he is innocent is literally immaterial to his guilt. Frankly, it’s the shallowest attempt at trying to raise suspicion about the verdict that I’ve heard in a long, long time. American justice isn’t a commerical for EF Hutton: “My conscience is formed by Nelson Mandela and Mandela says Peltier is innocent and should be freed….” What he thinks is equally immaterial.

    If Peltier is innocent, there has to be at least 1 federal judge in the back pocket of the ACLU or HR Watch –probably appointed by Jimmy Carter– that would find actionable grounds to reopen the case. 1 judge, Peter; even in retirement. 1 federal judge.

    Pushing for anything less than that is to undermine the American system of justice. Work within the system if you must –donate $50k-75k to some attorney and make it so. But stop with the shallow arguments that might have swayed you and actually do something, if you’re so hell bent on freeing what is, admittedly, a murderer. To put a fine line on it: put your money where your mouth is… and let’s see if that trusting soul and troubled conscience of yours can be assuaged by delibertative personal action.

    Or, you can be like all lazy journalists… just write an irresponsible story about it.

    http://www.fbi.gov/libref/hallhonor/colerwilliams.htm

    http://www.noparolepeltier.com/shootout.html

  • Sean Linnane

    This entire scenario is an example of the time-honored truism of American Justice: You WILL pay the System, one way or the other.

    Two Federal Agents were killed; and when the dust settled, somebody had to pay the price. Peltier ended up winning the booby prize.

    But this was not a regular homicide. This was not murder; this was a political killing. It happened, and then Peltier drew the short straw when it came time to answer for it. He paid the price.

    This scenario that has plagued the American Indians from the first day they sat in council with the White Man. Like the old Sergeant Major said: “If you expect the Government to take care of you, you will get what the American Indians got.”

    They should probably cut him loose.

    Will they?

    No.

  • sinz54

    Sean Linnane: This was not murder; this was a political killing.
    Excuse me???

    “Political killing” is a euphemism for “terrorism.”

    We executed Timothy McVeigh, remember?

    Either way, Peltier should have been executed long ago. He should be glad that the U.S. courts let him live. That’s more than he deserves.

  • SFTor1

    It’s heartening to see that conservatives will not consider the word of officials directly involved in the case, but instead stick to their preconceived notions. Never mind that the FBI says they don’t know who did it.

    Leftist. Commie. Of course he’s guilty.

  • sinz54

    SFTor1: Leftist. Commie. Of course he’s guilty.
    I cheered when they executed Timothy McVeigh. I would have gladly volunteered to inject the poison into him myself.

    I’ll repeat: There is a legal process by which new evidence that is brought to light can be employed to exonerate a convict. (A number of convicts were released from long prison sentences after DNA testing became available and proved that they hadn’t been near their alleged victims.)

    You liberals make such a point about satisfying “the rule of law” in things like terrorism trials. Well, the rule of law says that Peltier must remain in jail until the legal machinery is satisfied that the verdict convicting him was mistaken. Once the legal machinery has overturned that verdict, he can walk out of jail a free man.

    That’s how our “rule of law” works.

  • MSheridan

    Excuse me, sinz54, but dragging McVeigh into this only muddies the waters. First, the crimes committed by McVeigh were far more horrendous. Second, and far more important, the case against Timothy McVeigh was open and shut.

    Being an advocate for due process need not entail holding the belief that every single convicted felon has actually received due process. We know that is not always the case. Requiring “new evidence” in this particular decades-old case is ridiculous. Peltier’s legal guilt or innocence was wholly established by the reliability of the existing evidence. If, as this op-ed asserts, Peltier was convicted based on coerced and untrue testimony and ballistic evidence which was concocted, proving his innocence is not even necessary. He could even be guilty as sin (a factual matter of which I have insufficient knowledge to have an opinion) and it wouldn’t matter. We do not, or at least we should not, convict people of crimes based on tainted or manufactured evidence. To do so is to utterly negate the legals system’s claim to disinterested impartiality, which is its strongest claim to being a system of justice.

    It’s fine, or at least a justifiable position to take, to say that if Peltier is guilty he should never be released. Life imprisonment for murder is well within the range of acceptable punishments in this country. I support it in many cases myself. However, aside from that important caveat, any attempted rebuttal to Peter Worthington’s piece which does not refute his assertions as to the facts of the case is just wind.

  • Justice

    YOU KNOW, YOU COULD ALL SAVE YOURSELF TIME IF YOU WOULD JUST BE WILLING TO VIEW THE VIDEOS OF PELTIER’S INTERVIEWS AND HEAR HIM CHANGE HIS ANSWERS (LIES), AND OPEN YOUR EYES TO THE FACT THAT LPDOC AND PELTIER NEVER CHANGES THEIR ARGUMENTS, IT ALL DEALS WITH 1890. I AM NATIVE AMERICAN AND PELTIER HAS DONE UNJUSTICE TO ALL OF US. HE DIDN’T JUST MURDER THOSE TWO AGENTS,HE EXECUTED THEM AND HE PLAYED A ROLE IN HAVING ANNIE MAE AQUASH EXECUTED TOO. SO GO TO (justice@noparolepeltier), WATCH THE VIDEOS. IT IS NOT THE FBI,BIA,MARSHALLS, TROOPERS OR THE GOVERNMENT THAT ARE LIEING OR BEING DECIETFUL, IT IS PELTIER AND HIS PUPPETS. FOR THOSE OF YOU THAT FEEL THAT HE GOT WHAT HE DESERVES, YOU ARE RIGHT, AND YES, HE SHOULD HAVE RECIEVED THE NEEDLE, BUT THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN TOO EASY, HE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD TO THINK ABOUT WHAT HE DID TO THOSE FAMILIES HE DESTROYED, THE CHILDREN THAT NOW HAVE NO FATHER OR MOTHER (ANNIE MAE AQUASH CHILDREN).OH YES,ALL THE SO CALLED HELP HE IS DOING FOR THE INDIANS IS NOTHING BUT LIES, HE HAS DONE NOTHING FOR US EXCEPT MAKE OUR LIVES WORSE!! THE FBI, BIA, MARSHALLS AND TROOPERS WERE ALL RISKING THEIR OWN LIVES TO SAVE THOSE ON THE PINEWOOD RESERATION, REMEMBER, PELTIER RAN SCARED AFTER HE EXECUTED THOSE AGENTS, LEAVING THE OTHERS TO FEND FOR THEMSELVES.HE ALSO LEFT THE COUNTRY BECAUSE HE KNEW HE WAS GUILTY.

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