Leonard Peltier Has Done 40 Years and Deserves Clemency – posted 2/15/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/18/2016
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 2/18/206 under the title “A Long Wait for Justice.”
February 6 marked Leonard Peltier’s 40th year in prison. Readers, whatever you feel about the verdict against him, he has more than served his time.
Peltier deserves clemency. He should be allowed to go home to his family. Imprisoned in Florida, he is so far from his North Dakota family that it is a physical hardship and almost a financial impossibility for them to visit him.
A leading activist in the American Indian Movement, Peltier was convicted of the June 1975 murder of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. More than 40 Native Americans participated in a shoot-out with the FBI at Oglala on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. Peltier was one of three Native Americans who were tried for their involvement in the gunfight and the two murders of the FBI agents.
A Native American man, Joseph Stuntz, also died in the shoot-out. A sniper shot Stuntz in the head. No one was ever charged for Stuntz’s death.
Peltier is 71 years old. He resides in a maximum security prison, the U.S Penitentiary at Coleman, Florida. Peltier faces some serious health challenges. He has suffered a stroke which left him partially blind in one eye. He has had a debilitating jaw condition which left him unable to chew properly and which causes consistent pain and headaches. He has had diabetes and a mild heart condition. Now he has an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He recently wrote about it:
“The doctor told me if it bursts, I can bleed to death. It’s also close to my spine and I could end up paralyzed. The good news is that it’s treatable and the operation has a 96-98 % success rate. But I’m in a max security prison. We don’t get sent for treatment until it is terminal.”
I would submit that Peltier has already paid a very heavy price and the only justification for his continued incarceration is vindictiveness. I think he should be released from prison on humanitarian grounds and in the interest of justice.
Peltier did not receive a life without parole sentence. Usually there would be mandatory release after serving 30 years. Even though he is a senior and the Bureau of Prisons regulations says elders should be kept in a less dangerous facility, he has not been moved to medium security. This is true even though he has been classified as a medium security prisoner for over 15 years.
To say that there were a number of irregularities in Peltier’s case is a big understatement. Judge Gerald Heaney, who sat as a member of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that reviewed the case and who authored the 8th Circuit opinion, took the extraordinary step of writing to support clemency after he upheld the trial court’s decision. In 1991, Judge Heaney, who is now deceased, wrote:
“The United States government must share in the responsibility for the June 26 firefight…It appeared that the FBI was equally to blame for the shoot-out…The government’s role can properly be considered a mitigating circumstance…At some point, a healing process must begin. Favorable action by the President in the Leonard Peltier case would be an important step in this regard.”
Judge Heaney wrote that letter 25 years ago! He was quoted saying the Peltier case was “the most difficult I had to make in twenty two years on the bench.”
In 2003, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had this to say in a later proceeding about the Peltier case:
“Much of the government’s behavior at the Pine Ridge Reservation and in its prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed.”
While obviously any presentation of the facts at this late stage can be legitimately criticized as partial, there are some facts I would point to. The prosecution admitted it could not prove who actually shot the FBI agents or what participation Peltier may have had in their deaths. Peltier’s co-defendants, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, were acquitted by a court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After the Pine Ridge events, Peltier fled to Canada. After extradition, he was tried separately in Fargo, North Dakota, before a hostile new judge, Paul Benson, who barred presentation of the same self-defense arguments that had led to Robideau and Butler’s acquittal. Judge Benson sentenced Peltier to two consecutive life terms in federal prison.
Interestingly, since the government could not argue Peltier shot the agents since it lacked that proof, it argued Peltier should be convicted for aiding and abetting. It is not clear how Peltier could aid and abet his acquitted co-defendants.
Someone had to pay though and Peltier ended up as the fall guy.
During his time in prison, Peltier has made the best of it. He has been a model prisoner and a strong advocate for Native Americans. He has mentored young Native prisoners, encouraging them to lead clean and sober lives. He has earned 4 to 5 years good time that has not been recognized. He is the author of a book, Prison Writings: My Life is my Sun Dance, and he has developed into a talented painter.
The history of Peltier’s bid for clemency goes all the way back to President Jimmy Carter. It is a long history of disappointment. Peltier has written that President Ronald Reagan promised President Gorbachev he would release Peltier if the Soviet Union released a prisoner. Peltier writes that Reagan reneged on that promise.
It appeared that President Bill Clinton might grant clemency to Peltier. The Pardon Attorney did an 11 month investigation and Peltier was told she recommended clemency. Clinton did not make that grant. On his last day in office, Clinton pardoned fugitive financier, Marc Rich – not Peltier.
President George W. Bush denied clemency in 2009.
It is now up to President Obama. Until he leaves office, Obama does have clemency power to commute Peltier’s sentence. I would encourage all to sign the online clemency petition. Also you can write, call, fax or email the White House to express your support for an award of Executive Clemency for Leonard Peltier.
Amnesty International, the Dalai Lama, the late Nelson Mandela, Congressman John Lewis, the National Congress of American Indians (representing 566 tribes), the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs of Canada, the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Pine Ridge and many many others have supported clemency for Peltier.
Granting clemency to Peltier should not be viewed as expressing any disrespect for the current agents or leadership of the FBI nor does it represent any condoning of the killing that took place at Pine Ridge. The events at issue happened so long ago.
It is wrong to continue to make Peltier a scapegoat. He deserves clemency on the facts and merits of his petition.