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Opinion. Leonard Peltier turns 78 years old on Monday, September 12.

Sadly, he will be commemorating his birthday in a federal prison, where he remains incarcerated for a crime many legal experts say he did not commit. 

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Peltier, a tribal citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, has been in prison for 46 years. He was convicted of killing two FBI agents who showed up on June 25, 1975 at a private Oglala residence on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Peltier was tried and convicted in a sham of a trial that included falsified testimony from witnesses and prosecutors withholding evidence that could have assisted Peltier’s defense. Federal Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over an appeal hearing on the case, has said the FBI utilized improper tactics to convict Peltier. Heaney suggested the FBI was equally responsible for the shoot-out.

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark was more blunt in describing Peltier’s trial and conviction: “There was no evidence that he did it, except fabricated, circumstantial evidence, overwhelmingly misused, concealed and perverted.”

Clark said he could explain “beyond serious doubt” that Peltier committed no crime whatsoever, “but if he had been guilty of firing a gun that killed an FBI agent, it was in defense of not just his people but the integrity of humanity, from domination and exploitation.”  

During the final days of the Obama presidency, former U.S. Attorney James Reynolds, who had been the government’s prosecutor in Peltier’s trial, sent a letter to President Obama to urge clemency. In the letter, Reynolds argued for Peltier’s Clemency Petition “as being in the best interests of justice considering the totality of all matters involved.”

Through the years, the FBI has adamantly opposed the release of Peltier. The deaths of the two agents at Oglala were tragic by all human standards, as were the deaths of innocent American Indians who died during the “Reign of Terror” on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the ‘70s.

While the majority of Americans, including Native Americans, agree the FBI serves a vital service to this nation, it should be acknowledged the agency is operated by human beings who, from time to time, make mistakes. Quite clearly, there is enough evidence that the FBI made many mistakes in its determination to ensure Peltier was found guilty.

Many American Indians and others around the world view Peltier as a political prisoner. Through the years, Peltier’s supporters have included the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Coretta Scott King, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, among many other prominent individuals.

The call for Peltier’s release from prison is supported by the National Congress of American Indians and Amnesty International.

This past Thursday, the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Resolutions Committee gave Peltier a bit of an early birthday gift when it unanimously approved a resolution asking President Biden to consider clemency for him. 

The DNC resolution states that Peltier is a good candidate for leniency and “that the President should use clemency powers to secure the release of those serving unduly long sentences,” and “that given the overwhelming support for clemency, the constitutional due process issues underlying Mr. Peltier’s prosecution, his status as an elderly inmate, and that he is an American Indian, who suffer from greater rates of health disparities and severe underlying health conditions.” 

Over the decades of his incarceration, there have emerged several reasons why Peltier should be released from prison, according to Kevin Sharp, a former Chief Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. Now in private practice, Sharp agreed to take on Peltier’s case pro bono and fight for his freedom.

“Rather than receiving equal protection under the law, Leonard Peltier was convicted based on fabricated evidence, perjured testimony, and a hidden exculpatory ballistics test,” Sharp said to Native News Online. “Even the federal government now admits they don’t know who shot the agents. 

“Leonard remains in prison not because of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but because of politics. His last chance at freedom is the collective voice of people who care and dare to stand up for justice and mercy.” 

Peltier has spent more than half of his life in federal prison for a crime he did not commit. That he will wake up in prison on his 78th birthday tomorrow is a continued miscarriage of justice by the federal government. 

Americans who believe in justice should urge President Biden to correct the federal government’s mistake and free Leonard Peltier.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].