Was Leonard Peltier Wrongfully Convicted?
Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is a place of poverty and social dysfunction. In the 1970s, it was also plagued by murder and mayhem of almost daily frequency. There were frequent violent clashes between groups of vicious thugs and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an organization that advocates for the preservation of traditional Native culture and the rights of Indians. On June 26, 1975, FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams drove into this toxic stew of a broken society. They were looking for a man called Jimmy Eagle who was wanted in connection with an assault and robbery.
Shoot-out at Pine Ridge
What exactly happened to Agents Coler and Williams has never been definitively established. They were near a ranch when they came under fire, but their service revolvers were useless against the high-powered rifle fire that was coming at them.
One hundred and twenty-five rounds were fired at the agents’ cars.
Both agents died. According to the FBI they were executed after being wounded.
The FBI says the agents’ weapons were later found, one of them in a vehicle Leonard Peltier was driving along with two AIM members. The vehicle had been stopped in Oregon by a state trooper and, after a brief gun battle, Peltier escaped. He made his way to Canada where he took refuge in a friend’s cabin in Alberta.
By December 1975, Leonard Peltier was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.
Extradition and Trial
A woman called Myrtle Poor Bear told the FBI she was Leonard Peltier’s girlfriend and that she had seen the murders. She gave a sworn affidavit in which she said “I saw Leonard Peltier shoot the agents.”
Based on Ms. Poor Bear’s testimony, Canada’s Solicitor General at the time, Warren Allmand, agreed to have Mr. Peltier arrested and sent back to America in June 1976.
Three others who had been indicted in the murders had already been tried and found not guilty. Leonard Peltier returned to the U.S. too late to be tried with the other three; he would face trial on his own. Prosecutors needed someone to convict and they decided Leonard Peltier was going play that role.
After a trial that was highly prejudicial to the defence, an all-white jury had no trouble finding Mr. Peltier guilty of murder and he was sentenced to two life terms to be served consecutively.
Leonard Peltier does not deny that he was present at the Pine Ridge incident. He does deny that he killed the FBI agents.
Of the witnesses who testified at Peltier’s trial many have since retracted their statements.
Myrtle Poor Bear wanted to testify but Federal Judge Paul Benson kept her out of the proceedings on the grounds of “mental incompetence” and because what she might say “could be highly prejudicial to the government.”
She later stated that she had never seen Leonard Peltier in her life before and was intimidated by the FBI into giving her incriminating evidence. Other “witnesses” told similar stories of being tied to chairs and threatened until they agreed to give testimony that Mr. Peltier was the killer.
The prosecution kept 140,000 pages of the FBI investigation from the defence, because some of them pointed to his innocence.
An FBI ballistics expert gave testimony that a bullet casing found near the bodies of the dead agents came from Mr. Peltier’s gun. However, another ballistics test proved the casing was not connected to Leonard Peltier. This vital piece of information was concealed.
It also turned out that the FBI tampered with evidence.
Aftermath and Appeals
Despite rulings in his favour Leonard Peltier is still in prison.
As more and more of the prosecution’s shenanigans have surfaced, Leonard Peltier’s supporters have tried to get him released.
Canada’s Solicitor General Warren Allmand has said that if he had known the true nature of the U.S. Justice Department’s corrupted evidence he never would have agreed to Mr. Peltier’s extradition.
An appeal in 1986 ruled that “We recognize that there is some evidence in this record of improper conduct on the part of some FBI agents, but we are reluctant to impute even further improprieties to them.” Appeal denied.
Five years later, the judge who presided over that appeal, Gerald Heaney, wrote to Senator Daniel Inouye, then Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. In his letter he said “Although our Court decided that these actions were not grounds for reversals, they are, in my view, factors that merit consideration in any petition for leniency filed.” Still no luck.
Parole hearings end the same way every time on the grounds that Leonard Peltier does not accept criminal responsibility for murdering the FBI agents.
The U.S. Parole Commission has even acknowledged that “the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that you personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.” Still, no parole. Next hearing in 2024.
As President Bill Clinton’s term in office came to a close there was a big campaign to persuade him to grant Mr. Peltier a presidential pardon. The FBI closed ranks and applied pressure on Mr. Clinton not to release Mr. Peltier; their protest included a large rally outside the White House. The FBI tactics worked.
George W. Bush was very unlikely to grant clemency and he didn’t. A campaign was launched to persuade Barack Obama to pardon Leonard Peltier. Pardon denied.
His lawyer, Martin Garbus, told Democracy Now “… Obama’s not granting him clemency is like a sentence of death. Trump ain’t going to do it.”
The list of organizations campaigning for Mr. Peltier is long and growing: The Innocence Project, Amnesty International, AIM, The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The European Parliament, The Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, among others.
Individual supporters include the late Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and filmmaker Robert Redford, who narrated the 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story, which gives evidence that his treatment was unjust and politically motivated.
Now over 73 years old and having undergone triple heart bypass surgery, he sits in his cell in Coleman, Florida and waits, hoping that one day the wheels of justice will turn in his favour.
In a 2017 article entitled Liquid Genocide, Oliver Laughland and Tom Silverstone of The Guardian tell how alcohol has affected the people on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. Booze is banned on the reservation, but has been for sale in nearby Whiteclay, Nebraska. The community has 14 residents and four liquor stores. The Guardian reporters write “Four million cans of beer left the stores here each year – 11,000 a day.” The toll this has taken on the Oglala Lakota Sioux people is frightening.
- As many as two-thirds of adults on the reservation struggle with alcoholism;
- A quarter of the babies born have fetal alcohol syndrome; and
- The suicide rate is more than four times higher than the national average.
At the end of September 2017, the Supreme Court of Nebraska voted unanimously to close the liquor stores in Whiteclay.
- “Famous Trials, The Leonard Peltier Trial 1977.” Douglas O. Linder, University of Missouri – Kansas City, undated.
- “Robert Redford Renews Fight to Release Jailed AIM Activist Leonard Peltier.” Michael Enright, CBC Sunday Edition, April 6, 2014.
- “Leonard Peltier.” Amnesty International, undated.
- Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
- “Leonard Peltier Denied Clemency by Obama.” Democracy Now, January 18, 2017.
- “Liquid Genocide: Alcohol Destroyed Pine Ridge Reservation - then they Fought Back.” Oliver Laughland and Tom Silverstone, The Guardian, September 29, 2017.