How Leonard Peltier has unjustly spent forty years in prison — and why it’s time to change that

 

So much time has passed that many Americans have forgotten, if they ever knew, what happened to an American Indian named Leonard Peltier, who has spent more than 40 years confined in various federal penitentiaries. This summer, a group of his family members and friends are traveling the country in an attempt to salvage what remains of his life, and to remind us all that no statute of limitations pertains to the application of justice.

Peltier’s ordeal began when two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, were shot to death on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. No one familiar with the details of the case believes that Leonard committed the murders, and Peter Matthiessen explored this miscarriage of justice in his 1983 book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, called Matthiessen’s book “the first solidly documented account of the U.S. government’s renewed assault upon American Indians that began in the 1970s.”

Leonard Peltier remains imprisoned after being convicted in connection with the shooting death of two FBI agents in 1975. Supporters of Peltier say he is a political prisoner.
Karpov/Wikimedia Commons

The plain truth is that with two FBI agents shot dead on an Indian reservation, the government needed a conviction. At Peltier’s trial before an all-white jury, prosecutors used false testimony against him, some of it obtained through torture.  One particularly repugnant example: The FBI produced affidavits by a woman named Mabel Poor Bear, who said she was Leonard’s girlfriend and claimed to have seen him shoot Williams and Coler at close range. But Poor Bear had never met Leonard, didn’t even know what he looked like, and was proved to have been nowhere near the scene of the murders. When she tried to recant her testimony, claiming that the FBI had threatened to take her child away if she didn’t sign the affidavit, the judge refused to hear her testimony.

Amnesty International classifies Leonard as a political prisoner.  Some of his other defenders include Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Robert Cantuar, a former archbishop of Canterbury.  Michael Apted produced an acclaimed documentary film exploring the case, Incident at Oglala, which was narrated by Robert Redford. 

Despite the FBI’s fraudulent evidence and perjured testimony, Peltier remains in federal prison.  He went in as a 31-year-old and is now 71. He’s been transferred often, from Leavenworth, Kansas, to Terre Haute, Indiana, to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to Canaan, Pennsylvania, back to Lewisburg, and finally to Florida.  Everywhere he’s been, inmates have jumped and beaten him, likely with the collusion of guards. Now he is going blind from diabetes, suffers from kidney failure and is susceptible to strokes. Ed Little Crow, a Lakota living in Oregon, says that all Peltier wants “is a chance to see his family and work on old cars. If that dignified black man who’s president doesn’t pardon him, he’ll die in prison. This is his last chance.”

When Peltier was sentenced, the applicable law stated that an inmate with a good record should, after 30 years, be released. His record was good, but, instead of freedom, his parole board gave him another 15-year sentence. His next hearing is scheduled for 2024.

Before his second term ended, President Bill Clinton, under pressure from Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye and billionaire philanthropist David Geffen, among others, was expected to grant executive clemency. But after several hundred FBI agents, along with the dead agents’ family members, demonstrated outside the White House, Clinton on his last day in office pardoned a financier named Marc Rich instead. Rich had been indicted for tax evasion and illegal oil deals, including a purchase of $200 million worth of oil from Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran while 53 Americans were being held hostage there, and selling oil to the apartheid regime in South Africa despite a U.N. embargo. Geffen called Rich’s pardon “a sign of corrupted values.” 

On my last trip to South Dakota, I visited the Pine Ridge Reservation. In the town of Pine Ridge, I talked to the man I’d come to see and then drove north to Wounded Knee, where I spent the long afternoon alone. There was a pleasantly cool north wind and a clear blue sky. I walked and thought. This quiet place was where, in 1890, the U.S. 7th Cavalry surrounded an encampment of Lakotas, and for no justifiable reason opened fire. By some estimates, as many as 300 Indian men, women and children were slaughtered by the time the firing finally stopped. To make a foul deed even worse, at least 20 of the soldiers who participated in this senseless massacre were awarded the Medal of Honor.

There’s nothing anyone can ever do about what happened at Wounded Knee.  But, though very belatedly, something can still be done about Leonard Peltier. I hope President Obama sets this man free.

Mike Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer in Ashland, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.