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.

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