On January 28th, Brian Schatz, (D-Hawai’i), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs urged President Biden to commute the sentence of Native American activist Leonard Peltier and send him home. A Lakota and Chippewa, Peltier has now been in prison for 46 years, making him among the longest imprisoned persons in the U.S., and was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.
Peltier’s facility, a high-security penitentiary in Florida called USP Coleman I, is currently one of 98 federal prisons at a Level 3 COVID-19 operational level, which means its COVID medical isolation rate is at the highest level. For the facility’s 1,335 inmates, this translates to no contact with other people within the facility and no visitation from anyone externally.
The U.S. has continually championed itself as the beacon of democracy and judicial fairness. It maligns Russia and China for having terrible human rights records and claims to have no political prisoners, which is as far from the truth as the east is from the west.
In less than 100 years after the massacre of the Sioux people at Wounded Knee in December 1890; the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota was again the site of government encroachment, injustice, and murder.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) and their supporters occupied the site in North Dakota for 71 days in the winter of 1973 to protest deplorable socio-economic conditions on the reservation, and to demand an investigation into the 371 treaties signed between the native nations and U.S. federal government which had been broken.
The U.S. government responded by trying to starve the occupants and then the FBI raided the reservation. Numbers of AIM activists were shot and killed by sniper fire or kidnapped and tortured. Wilson spearheaded a reign of terror targeting OSCRO activists with support from federal authorities, in which some 64 Native Americans were murdered.
On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack A. Coler and Ronald A. Williams, were shot and killed while attempting to serve arrest warrants for robbery and assault with a dangerous weapon on the Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge.
Peltier was arrested and charged with the murder of the agents along with Bob Robideau and Darrell Butler, who were acquitted based on their self-defense argument.
The only person who was not acquitted was Peltier because of his work with AIM and its influence among the Native peoples. In April 1977, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences for killing the two FBI agents.
However, not one witness identified Peltier as the shooter and a ballistic test proving that the casing in the bullets that killed the agents did not come from the gun tied to Mr. Peltier was intentionally concealed.
A 1992 documentary narrated by Robert Redford, Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story, suggested that the real murderer of the agents, a “Mr. X”, remained at large having escaped in a red pick-up truck mentioned in FBI Agent Gary Adams’s transmission on the day of the shooting.
Judge Gerald Heaney, a Minnesota judge who in 1986 wrote an opinion denying Peltier’s appeal, subsequently voiced firm support for Mr. Peltier’s release, stating that a) the FBI used improper tactics to convict Mr. Peltier, that b) the FBI was equally responsible for the shoot-out, and that c) Mr. Peltier’s release would promote healing with Native Americans.
James Reynolds, who supervised a key part of the case against Peltier, wrote a letter to President Obama in 2016 demanding that Peltier receive clemency; he said that prosecutors at the time merely believed that Peltier was an accomplice to the FBI agents killing and not the shooter, and that he was wrongfully convicted.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) of which Peltier was a member, is a group of Native activists involved in struggle to improve the socio-economic conditions of their people as well as challenging the Government on its Violation of Treaties with the Native peoples.
Just like COINTELPRO the government through the FBI carried out constant harassment and intimidation of Native peoples struggling for their Rights as indigenous people and as enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.
Prosecutorial misconduct in Peltier’s case covered everything from intimidation and coercion of witnesses, withholding evidence, tainted jury pool, lack of evidence worthy of prosecution, and conflicting testimony by FBI agents.
By arresting, charging, and imprisoning Peltier, the attempt was to destroy the AIM and reduce its growing influence among the Native peoples.
This tactic is not new to the Peltier case; the U.S. government through its various law enforcement agencies have repeatedly carried out a policy of frame-ups, intimidation, demonization, false arrests, and imprisonment, bombing and assassination of dissidents.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after being convicted as spies in a case that was filled with inconsistencies and testimony from dubious ‘witnesses;’ Paul Robeson’s passport was revoked; Angela Davis had to go in hiding and eventually escaped the electric chair because of domestic and international protests; the Black Panther Party was surveilled and disrupted and its leadership imprisoned on trumped up and frivolous charges; George Jackson was killed under the pretext that he was attempting to escape from prison; the MOVE compound in Philadelphia was bombed; Fred Hampton was assassinated in his bed; Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur) had to escape from prison and go into exile to avoid life imprisonment for a crime the State has yet to prove she committed; to this day Mumia Abu Jamal is still in prison charged with the murder of a police officer, a case so riddled with prosecutorial and judicial bias and misconduct, that it is a gross disgrace to the legal profession and an affront to the judicial system while trampling on the provisions of the Constitution.
At the same time, we must not overlook what has happened and is happening to Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Daniel Hale, and Julian Assange.
Leonard Peltier is now 77 years old and has serious health issues that are best addressed in an outside medical facility, not within the confines of a prison system that is grossly unjust and answers to the FBI who wants him dead.
Peltier represents defiance and a willingness not to compromise on principles or sell out the interests of his people; this is counter to the ideology of exploitation and oppression. What rationale is there to keep Peltier in prison after 46 years? Whatever he was accused of has been paid for tenfold over; this is best described as cruel and unusual punishment, tantamount to torture physically and emotionally. It is illegal, immoral, and unjust.
Over the years, prominent people, human rights activists and entertainers, have called for Peltier’s release citing the injustice and politically motivated basis for his arrest, trial, and conviction. The ranks of those demanding clemency, as noted, includes members of the prosecutorial team and judiciary that convicted Peltier and denied his appeal.
Joe Biden has promoted himself as a voice of reason and compassion, and an inclusive president who values diversity.
In the interest of justice and if the Biden Administration really wants to set a new narrative regarding the rights of indigenous people; if it wants to set a new course in the dispensation of justice and how its meted out to its citizens; if it really wants to honor the Constitution and if it wants to set moral leadership in the world, there is only one recourse surrounding this issue.
President Joe Biden must review and pay attention to the numerous petitions, resolutions, letters and calls for clemency; President Joe Biden must do the right thing: Free Leonard Peltier.
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About the Author
Richard Dunn is a retired construction professional, trained in Architecture and Energy Management.
He’s been a social justice activist since 1968 and was particularly active with the Walter Rodney defense demonstrations.
Richard is an author, a contributing columnist to newspapers, an editor for a music industry magazine and operates a social justice website.
Richard can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.