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Opinion. For the first time in 15 years, Leonard Peltier will be afforded a full parole hearing on Monday, June 10 at the United States Penitentiary at Coleman, Fla. 

Peltier (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) has been incarcerated for 48 years for the killing of two FBI agents at Oglala on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975. For five decades, Peltier has maintained his innocence and hoped for the chance to clear his name.  

Monday’s hearing may well be his last chance at vindication.  

The incident that led to Peltier’s imprisonment happened some 49 years ago, when two FBI agents — Jack Coler and Ronald Williams — arrived at a residence on the reservation to pursue a suspect who had taken a pair of shoes in a robbery. The two FBI agents, who were white, arrived in an unmarked car in plain clothes. 

Tensions were already running high between law enforcement and Native Americans in South Dakota in the aftermath of the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in early 1973. The incident occurred during a time known on Pine Ridge as a “reign of terror,”' characterized by deadly ambushes on highway checkpoints and extended gunfights. During this span, some 64 Native Americans were murdered and over 300 were physically assaulted.

On June 26, 1975, the situation escalated when Coler and Williams were killed during a shootout as they attempted to apprehend a young AIM member accused of theft and assault. The gunfight involved numerous individuals, and there has never been a denial that Peltier was present during the shooting, but he has said repeatedly he did not kill the agents. 

It didn’t matter. He was accused of shooting the two FBI agents. He fled to Canada, only to be extradited back to the United States in 1976 to stand trial for the agents' murders.

Following a controversial trial marred by allegations of prosecutorial conduct, falsified testimony, and fabricated evidence, Peltier was convicted of aiding and abetting murder and has been imprisoned since 1977.

Notable legal experts, including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, say Peltier was not given a fair trial by the U.S. government.

“I think I can explain beyond serious doubt that Leonard Peltier has 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,” Clark said. “You have to remember no witness really said they saw Leonard take aim at anybody. No witness said they heard him shoot at the time he could have killed an agent. There was no evidence that he did it, except fabricated, circumstantial evidence, overwhelmingly misused, concealed and perverted.”

Even federal Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over an appeal hearing, has said the FBI utilized improper tactics to convict Peltier. He suggests the FBI was equally responsible for the shoot-out.

In 2017, former U.S. Attorney James Reynolds wrote a letter to President Obama to support clemency for Peltier. Reynolds was the federal prosecutor involved in the legal proceedings against Peltier, playing a significant role in the case. 

In his later years, Reynolds has publicly expressed doubts about the fairness of Peltier's trial and has joined calls for his clemency, acknowledging issues with the case and the conduct of the prosecution. Reynolds urged Obama to grant 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. While the deaths of their two agents at Oglala were tragic by all human standards, the deaths of hundreds of innocent Native Americans who died during the 1970s’ Reign of Terror were equally tragic.

To many Native Americans, Peltier is a symbol of an oppressive federal system that relegates Native people to apartheid and neglect. He is a political prisoner that we may only think about if we happen to see a bumper sticker on the back of a vehicle that reads “FREE Leonard Peltier.”

Beyond his Native American supporters, many people and human rights organizations — including Amnesty International, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and others — have stated their beliefs that Peltier is a political prisoner who should be immediately released.

Now 79 years old, Peltier suffers from multiple health issues and has to use a walker to maneuver the maximum-security prison. He also suffers from diabetes, blindness in one eye, and an aortic aneurysm. As with other elders, his advanced age has rendered him frail. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Peltier’s age and comorbidities unequivocally made him eligible for home release under Department of Justice guidelines. The Department of Justice ignored the pleas to have Peliter released then.

In a recent episode of Native Bidaské, I asked attorney Kevin Sharp, who will represent Peltier at the parole hearing on Monday, how he thought the parole commission would react to the fact Peltier has maintained his innocence through the years. Typically, parole boards want convicted prisoners to admit guilt and express remorse.

“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,” Sharp responded.

Peltier’s spiritual advisor of 40 years, Lenny Foster (Diné), spoke with me Saturday morning about his hopes for his longtime friend.  

“We are hoping and praying that the parole commission will grant Leonard parole so that he can go back to his people on the Turtle Mountain Reservation to be with his loved ones to serve out his remaining years to be with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Foster told me. “He is a revered elder among the Indian community.” 

Nearly 80, Peltier is a Native American elder who poses no threat to society. He’s old and broken. He has paid a price for an injustice to him, his family, and to all Native Americans. It is past time to 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].