The case of Leonard Peltier is perhaps one of the most prominent modern examples of the continued wrongs wrought against the American Indians by the United States Government. He has been incarcerated since 1976 for the unconfirmed killing of two FBI agents.
The evidence against him, as you will see, is both circumstantial and supported by illegal terror tactics, yet somehow, his case has never been seriously revisited.
Peltier’s History with the American Indian Movement (AIM)
Leonard Peltier started working with Native American activist groups in Seattle Washington in 1965. Eventually, he joined AIM, which represents the many U.S. tribes and works to safeguard tribal spirituality while attempting to make the U.S. Government honor the promises made to the native peoples in treaties throughout the years.
A few years later, word reached Leonard about political and factional tensions that were boiling over in South Dakota, many of them centered at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The tribal chairman there, Richard Wilson, had created a militia of his own (infamously called GOON) to attack anyone who opposed him politically and to antagonize the American Indian Movement members who lived on the reservation.
The problem became so bad that federal forces besieged the area known as Wounded Knee for 71 days. Leonard spent much of that time in prison pending trial for the attempted murder of a police officer – a charge unrelated to the events simmering around South Dakota’s reservation lands and a crime for which he was later acquitted.
When he was released on bail, he was contacted by American Indians living at the Pine Ridge reservation who feared for their lives due to the violence that was breaking out between FBI agents and the AIM and GOON members. Despite the trouble he knew it would put him in, he traveled to the Pine Ridge reservation to help out the AIM activists in 1975.
What Happened in Pine Ridge, South Dakota?
FBI agents, AIM members and GOON militia were all warring with one another in and around the Pine Ridge reservation in June of 1975. Tensions were high, small skirmishes continued to breakout and one Native American, Jimmy Eagle, was suspected of assault and robbery. He was being pursued by two FBI agents – Ronald Williams and Jack Coler.
The agents chased Jimmy to a ranch, and engaged in a firefight with several Native Americans there, including Leonard Peltier. One Native American, Joseph Stuntz, was shot dead, but his death never received a formal investigation.
The FBI agents had called for backup, but by the time their reinforcements arrived, the initial two agents had been shot dead. Peltier fled to Canada to hide out while several of his friends were arrested and he was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
It seemed Leonard would be safe in Canada for a time, until a signed affidavit from someone claiming to be his girlfriend placed him at the scene of the shootout and directly implicated him in the two agents’ deaths. In light of the affidavit, the Canadian government handed Leonard over to the U.S. government. Leonard was subsequently arrested and scheduled for trial.
Later, the supposed girlfriend, Myrtle Poor Bear, recanted the statements of her affidavit, and it was discovered that she never knew Leonard and was not present at the shooting. These new facts were not admitted into the trial on the grounds that the judge decided she was mentally incompetent.
Leonard Peltier’s Murder Trial
The trial of Leonard Peltier has been called a farce by no less than Amnesty International, and an examination of the facts makes it obvious why that is.
The evidence against Leonard seed circumstantial at best. He was placed at the scene of the shooting, and he owned the type of firearm that was used to kill the agents. He also had a less than savory history with federal law enforcement. None of this was enough to convict him of murder, however, until witnesses were brought forth.
Several teenage Native American witnesses came forward against Leonard. Although none of them identified him as the person who shot the two agents at close range and killed them, they placed him at the scene at that time. Later, these same witnesses admitted that they had been forced by the FBI, after being tied to a chair and terrorized, to implicate Leonard in the crimes.
Left out of the evidence presented for the case was evidence that seemed to exonerate Leonard, including a ballistics test that proved the killing shots did not come from his weapon. Also left out of the case were the many reports of FBI violence against AIM activists in the area, illegal monitoring by the FBI in Pine Ridge and the fact that the FBI supplied GOON militia with weapons and information to help them launch attacks on AIM members.
What didn’t help Leonard was that his own accounts of what happened conflicted with one another and he told different officials different stories, even admitting later that he lied about his involvement. He declared his innocence in the killings though, and he retains that to this day.
Leonard Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in a trial that has all the earmarks of an unfair court case. He was incarcerated at U.S.P. Lewisburg.
The Movement to Free Leonard Peltier Continues Today
Still serving his sentence, with no hope for parole because he holds onto his plea of not guilty, Leonard has little hope for the future. He has attempted to appeal his case, as new evidence has been brought forward that casts doubt on the verdict he received. He was nearly pardoned under former U.S. President Bill Clinton, but that fell through due to a demonstration made by FBI agents in protest.
He hopes President Barack Obama will pardon him before he leaves office, but he is also realistic about his chances. While AIM and a variety of activist groups have worked to free him for years, their efforts have not made any difference in his sentencing. He has received numerous humanitarian awards and serves as an inspiration to many people who have been treated unfairly, but his case has never been brought back before the courts, and Leonard is not scheduled to be released until 2040. However, his health is in such dire shape that he is not expected to make it that long, and he will likely die in prison, wrongfully incarcerated.
MORE ON PELTIER FROM THE WEB
Sisters, brothers, friends and supporters: June 26 marks 41 years since the long summer day when three young men were killed at the home of the Jumping Bull family, near Oglala, during a firefight in which I and dozens of others participated.
I would guess that, like me, many of my brothers and sisters who were there that day wish that somehow they could have done something to change what happened and avoid the tragic outcome of the shootout. This is not something I have thought about casually and then moved on.