President Obama granted clemency to 231 prisoners on Monday (pardoning 78 people and shortening the sentences of 153 people) yet 71 year old Leonard Peltier is one of the high-profile prisoners whose situation remains unchanged despite great public outcry.
“The only thing I’m guilty of is struggling for my people. I didn’t kill those agents.”
Peltier is a Native American activist currently serving his 41st year of two consecutive life sentences for the 1975 murders of two FBI agents (Jack Coler and Ronald Williams) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In 1975, Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) which is an advocacy group for the rights of Native Americans. During this time, known as the Reign of Terror by locals, there were allegations that AIM members and Pine Ridge residents were being intimidated and killed by people in connection with the United States government. In the two years prior to this event, 60 Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation had been killed. Coler and Williams were looking for James Theodore Eagle in connection with an armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. Both agents were wounded in an exchange of gunfire but the fatal shots were allegedly fired at close range execution style. Native American Joseph Stuntz was also killed in the gunfire exchange that day though charges were never brought against anyone for his death.
Two other AIM members were initially charged with the murders but were acquitted by the jury.
Problems at Trial
One issue with this case is the submission of false affidavits to the court by federal agents. Peltier was arrested in Canada on February 6, 1976 based on an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear. Myrtle Poor Bear claimed at the time to have witnessed the shootings. She confessed in 2000 that she had given false statements after being pressured by the FBI for months. When Peltier’s defense tried to call her as a defense witness at trial, her testimony was barred on the grounds that it could be highly prejudicial to the government.
In 1980, Peltier’s lawyers obtained documents containing ballistics evidence that would have assisted his case (the firing pin in Peltier’s gun was different than the one used to kill the agents) but that was withheld by the prosecution at trial. The U.S. Court of Appeal for the Eight Circuit denied him a retrial in 1986 agreeing with the government that there was sufficient evidence that Peltier aided and abetted the killings even if he was not the actual killer. In 1991, Judge Gerald Heaney, the judge who presided over the 1986 appeal, wrote a letter to the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs stating he believed that “…the FBI used improper tactics” in securing the extraction from Canada and “in otherwise investigated and trying the Peltier case.”
Many believed President Clinton would grant clemency however, approximately 500 FBI agents and their families resisted. Clinton did not end up granting or denying clemency. George W. Bush denied the petition for clemency at the end of his second term.
Peltier still maintains his innocence and has been denied parole numerous times because he did not accept criminal responsibility for the two murders.
There was a 2016 Peltier Justice Ride that took place from July 12-July 23 where motorcyclists traveled from Banks, Oregon to the steps of the White House to raise awareness.
Peltier received the news of the death of his youngest son Wahacanka Paul Shields-Peltier this past weekend. His son died at the age of 41 in his hotel room in Washington D.C. where he was working with family to continue the efforts to advocate for his father’s release. Peltier is imprisoned in Florida nearly 2,000 miles away from his family making visits nearly impossible.
An ever growing list of medical concerns are another reason supporters are pushing the necessity of his release at this time. Peltier suffered a stroke causing 90% vision loss in one eye and has heart disease, diabetes, and an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He was recently also told that he needs to undergo prostate surgery.
Peltier is not eligible for parole again until 2024.
Call to Action
“My message to you today is this- please continue to work against injustice everywhere. As for me, I will do the same, but I am tired and I want to go home to my family. I have spent nearly 40 years behind these walls for something I did not do. I have become an old man and my health is failing me now. I ask that you do not forget me. And I thank you from my heart for all the good works you do to help me and to help to make this a better world.” -Quote of Leonard Peltier from Amnesty International
Amnesty International recommends several actions individuals can take if they feel moved by the plight of Leonard Peltier including:
- Tweet @POTUS to ask President Obama for Leorard’s release
- Use the hastag #FreePeltier2016 to bring awareness to the issue
- Call the White House at 202-456-1111
- Sign and share Amnesty International’s online action
- Write Leonard a letter at
Leonard Peltier, #89637-132
USP Coleman 1 US Penitentiary
PO Box 1033, Coleman, FL 33521
Update January 4: According to the Washington Times, American University is removing a statute of Leonard Peltier that was erected last month after the president of the FBI Agents Association asked for its removal. The university noted it will held find another organization that is willing to exhibit the statute.