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As Leonard Peltier’s parole hearing approaches on June 10, there is renewed hope and vigorous debate about his potential release. 

Convicted for the killing of two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on the Oglala Nation, Peltier has been imprisoned for over 47 years. Among the voices calling for justice is Kevin Sharp, a former Navy veteran and former federal judge. 

Sharp is Co-Vice Chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp and Co-Chair of the Public Interest Litigation Group. He served as a U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee from 2011 to 2017, including as Chief Judge from 2014 to 2017, handling over 4,000 cases, including high-profile ones like Young v. Giles County Board of Education

With nearly 30 years of experience, Sharp has litigated complex civil cases, including opioid litigation and significant employment settlements. He has received numerous accolades, including The American Lawyer’s South Trailblazers and Lawdragon 500. Since 2019, he has led efforts to secure presidential clemency for Leonard Peltier.

Sharp was on a recent Native Bidaské. He was asked by Native News Online’s editor Levi Rickert to discuss Leonard Peltier's poor health at age 79 after decades in prison and his belief that Peltier risks death if kept in maximum security. He discusses the historical context of the 1975 Pine Ridge murders, and Peltier's involvement with the American Indian Movement, arguing Peltier's constitutional rights were violated during his 1977 trial.

Peliter’s June 10 parole hearing will consider testimony from both supporters and the government. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Leonard is having some health issues; he's nearly 80 years old. Can you talk about his current health conditions?

Thanks for asking about his health because, as you said, he has been in prison since 1977. He will turn 80 in September. He's 79 now, so he has all the health issues that come along with a normal 79-year-old, plus additional health issues. 

One of the worst is an aortic aneurysm, which is deadly if it ruptures. It has to be monitored closely, and it hasn't been as closely monitored as it should have been. He has heart issues and diabetes. The last few times I've seen him, he's used a walker. He's been blind in one eye, left partially blind from a stroke he had years ago, and his eyesight has gotten worse. He hasn't had access to a dentist in years. He's in bad shape, and things are not going well. 

With a parole hearing coming up on June 10th, if they deny parole, I don't know that he makes it to the next one. He's in Coleman 1, a maximum-security prison, which is dangerous for a frail, in-poor-health, 80-year-old man. It's a perfect storm for something bad to happen if we don't get him out.

We wish him well on parole. Before we talk about the parole hearing itself, can you tell us a bit about who you are and why you left the federal bench to do what you're doing for Leonard?

I didn't know who Leonard was; these events happened in 1975, and I was a young kid in Memphis at the time. I was a lawyer in Nashville doing civil rights work when I was nominated by the Obama administration for a position on the federal bench in 2010. 

I became a federal district court judge in Nashville. As a judge, I encountered mandatory minimums, where Congress dictates the sentence, removing the judge's ability to fashion a fair sentence. One case that really troubled me involved a young man convicted of a non-violent drug offense who I had to sentence to two life sentences. 

This made me question whether I should be on the bench. I decided to step down and work on clemency for that young man, and we were successful. After that, Connie Nelson contacted me about Leonard. I started reading his case files and was disturbed by the constitutional violations and misconduct in his prosecution and investigation. I contacted Leonard in 2019 to help him, and here we are 4.5 years later, still working on his freedom.

You mentioned that Leonard was there at the time, and they talk about aiding and abetting. But the time period was volatile, and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was in turmoil. Can you talk about the context of that time?

Pine Ridge was a powder keg with the Goon Squad operating there with the government's help. AIM was there to protect those who were not part of the Goon Squad. There were many murders and assaults in a three-year timeframe. 

When plain-clothed agents in unmarked cars arrived, a firefight ensued. Leonard did not shoot the agents, and the FBI knew this but withheld evidence. The court of appeals acknowledged this but couldn't overturn the conviction due to legal standards. 

Judge Heaney, who wrote the opinion, later supported clemency for Leonard. Now, 38 of Judge Heaney's former clerks support parole for Leonard, including three who worked on his case. 

The government admits they don't know who killed the agents, but it wasn't Leonard. It's time to release Leonard and start the healing process.

Please tell us about the particulars of the parole hearing on June 10.

The hearing will take place at Coleman, with a hearing officer present to take evidence and witness testimonies. We don't know all the witnesses yet, but some will testify in written form and some live. 

We'll hear from Leonard's doctor about his health, and from James Reynolds, the former US attorney who supervised the appeals, who supports parole for Leonard. We'll have witnesses to discuss Leonard's life after release, including his housing and healthcare on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation. 

Leonard will also address the hearing officer. The government will have people there arguing against his release. Support from the public is important, and we'll provide information on how to write to the parole commission.

Typically, parole boards want to hear an admission of guilt and remorse. Leonard has maintained his innocence. How does this play into the hearing?

It's difficult because Leonard didn't commit the crime, and there's no evidence that he did. He shouldn't lie about something he didn't do. Leonard has expressed remorse for the tragic events of that day and the overall situation. 

The whole thing is tragic, and Leonard feels bad about everything that happened. It's important for the hearing officer to understand this context and Leonard's genuine feelings of remorse for the tragedy.

Watch the complete Native Bidaské episode:

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