[Pnews] Leonard Peltier - Native American activist jailed 40 years fights for clemency

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 31 10:36:40 EDT 2016


  Native American activist jailed 40 years fights for clemency

BY Ginger Adams Otis - May 30, 2016

Wildwood, Fla. - The same high-security prison holds two men with vastly 
different lives, both shaped irrevocably by the same federal agency: The 

One of them terrorized the Northeast for nearly 30 years, an 
Irish-American mobster named Whitey Bulger who ruled Boston with 
unparalleled brutality and oversaw a sprawling organized crime enterprise.

He also, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, acted as an 
FBI informant for decades — even as he executed competitors and murdered 

When the FBI finally decided to move on Bulger in 1995, one of its own 
agents tipped him off — allowing the notorious crime lord to disappear 
for 16 years.

Nabbed at a California beach bungalow in 2011, convicted two years later 
of 31 crimes — including 11 murders — Bulger, 86, now inhabits Coleman 
2, a hulking yellow cinderblock federal penitentiary.

Next door, in Coleman 1, sits Leonard Peltier, another inmate whose life 
was upended by the FBI.

For Peltier, it took only a single run-in with law enforcement to 
determine his destiny.

While Bulger ruled the Boston underworld and lived on the lam, the 
71-year-old Native American activist in the adjoining lock up has called 
a prison cell home for four decades.

Peltier insists he didn’t fire the fatal shots that put him behind bars 
— the shots that felled FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams during 
a June 26, 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South 

“I was at Pine Ridge that day. I did exchange fire with the authorities 
who were shooting at us — but I didn’t kill those agents,” Peltier told 
the Daily News during a visit last week to his high-security facility.

“Of course I feel remorse,” he added. “Nobody should have died that day, 
the whole thing should never have happened. It was a terrible tragedy.”

His refusal to admit guilt has a price. His prior parole requests were 
denied for that reason.

“I’ve given the same answer for 40 years. I didn’t do it and I won’t say 
that I did. I won’t betray my people like that, I won't betray my 
culture,” said the activist.

Now a 71-year-old grandfather, Peltier is next up for parole in 2024, 
when he will be 79. He suffers from diabetes, prostate problems, and 
complications with his jaw from childhood tetanus and botched prison 

But the most worrisome ailment is a new one — an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

“It’s currently 5 centimeters by 4.5 centimeters,” he said of the 
potentially deadly bubble on his aorta. “They told me it must be 5 by 5 
before they can operate.”

Convicted of killing Coler and Williams in April 1977, Peltier long ago 
gave up on getting a new trial — despite the prosecutorial missteps, 
some acknowledged by judges, that his defense teams have presented at 
numerous appeals.

“I am prepared to die here. I would prefer it be back at my home, but 
I’m a realistic about my chances,” he said.

“I have my funeral all planned, I want a full ceremonial burial, with 
drumming, everything. Traditionally, it should be about three days,” 
said Peltier.

An Indian of Anishinabe, Dakota, and Lakota heritage, Peltier grew up 
among the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Fort Totten Sioux Nations of 
North Dakota.

He wants to be buried next to his father’s grave on the ancestral land 
that he roamed as a boy, fishing its many lakes for perch and trout to 
sell in the winter, four for $1.

Peltier holds out some hope that he may get clemency — “I’ll do it with 
house arrest, whatever they want,” he says. But bids for mercy haven’t 
worked for him in the past.

He got close in 2001, when outgoing President Bill Clinton was on the 
verge, Peltier’s lawyers thought, of issuing him a pardon.

But the FBI held a protest demonstration in downtown D.C. Some 500 
agents and retired G-men took to the streets to show their outrage at 
the possibility of clemency for a man convicted of gunning down two of 
their own.

On his last day in office, Clinton chose to pardon a man who was among 
the FBI's Ten Most Wanted — fugitive financier Marc Rich. He was living 
in exile in Switzerland to avoid prison for his slimy financial dealings 
with a host of American enemies, including Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, 
the apartheid regime in South Africa, Khadafy’s Libya, and many, many more.

In 2009, President George Bush denied Peltier clemency.

Despite those setbacks, the gray-haired and bespectacled prisoner 
remains a cause célèbre.

While Bulger received the Hollywood treatment, portrayed by Johnny Depp 
in last year's “Black Mass,” Peltier has had the backing of Marlon 
Brando and Robert Redford, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and numerous 
members of Congress. Even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - at the 
height of the Cold War - denounced his incarceration as an abuse of 
power by a vengeful FBI.

But the attention hasn't done anything to free Peltier - and, in certain 
circles, he believes, may even have hurt him.

“It makes it easy for some people to dismiss what happened to me, that I 
got railroaded into prison,” he said. “They look at all the attention 
and say, ‘There go those liberals, trying to get someone off again.’”

Now his supporters are trying once more — this time with President Obama.

A petition for clemency was sent to the White House in late March. 
Letters asking for support are making the rounds in Congress.

The FBI and the Department of Justice declined to comment to The News on 
Peltier and his quest for release.

But the FBI still has Coler and Williams on its “Hall of Honor” page. 
They’re listed as having died while “attempting to serve arrest warrants 
for robbery and assault with a dangerous weapon on the Oglala Sioux 
Indian Reservation,” aka Pine Ridge.

Missing from the official version, however, is an acknowledgment of the 
questionable tactics used by the FBI on Indian reservations before and 
after the fateful shooting — and agency’s determined crackdown against 
various protest groups it viewed as a sinister threat to American democracy.

Only later would the FBI admit to illegally surveilling and infiltrating 
some of those groups — such as Weather Underground, Black Panthers, the 
Black Liberation Army and others — through its controversial 
counter-intelligence program, known as COINTELPRO.

Peltier, like many Indian activists, was already on the FBI’s radar long 
before June 26, 1975, in part because of his involvement with the 
American Indian Movement, or AIM.

Started in Minneapolis in 1968, AIM was a militant organization like 
many in the 1970s. Its members occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969 and 
later marched to D.C. to take over the U.S. government’s Bureau of 
Indian Affairs building — where it went public with shocking 
documentation of forced sterilization of young Indian women and the 
relocation of Indian children in English-only boarding schools for 

AIM pushed for a renewal of traditional Indian culture, autonomy of its 
tribal areas and the reclaiming of lands it felt had been illegally seized.

That set it up for a series of ongoing clashes with BIA-employed agents 
that policed native lands — often with unwanted and unwarranted force.

The FBI and other law enforcement agents had already displayed their 
willingness to shoot first and ask questions later during the 1973 
shoot-out at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation. The siege 
lasted 71 days and left two Indians dead and a federal marshal seriously 

When Coler and Williams entered the Pine Ridge land two years later, 
tensions were at an all-time high. Since 1972, its residents had been 
caught in a bloody and protracted power struggle between BIA and AIM 

According to internal FBI documents obtained years after Peltier’s 
conviction — when his lawyers filed numerous Freedom of Information Act 
requests — the agency viewed AIM as armed and dangerous.

One memo dated April 24, 1975 was titled: “The use of Special Agents of 
the FBI in a paramilitary law enforcement operation in Indian Country.”

It outlined the agency’s plan to deploy FBI agents “in a paramilitary 
law enforcement situation” in the event of a major confrontation on Pine 

The FBI also thought there were armed bunkers on the Pine Ridge 
reservation around the buildings known as the Jumping Bull Ranch — where 
the shootout occurred.

In a June 1975 memo — three weeks before the deadly shootings — the FBI 
had written it would “literally require military assault forces” to 
overcome the “pockets of Indian population which consist almost 
exclusively of American Indian Movement members and their supporters on 
the Reservation.”

But what the FBI thought were bunkers would later turn out to be 
collapsed root cellars.

As wrong as the FBI was on some things about Pine Ridge, it was correct 
in noting that the violence there was extreme.

It stemmed from a faction-driven fight around tribal leader Dick Wilson, 
president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Many residents complained that he 
gave the best BIA jobs to friends and family and terrorized his 
naysayers with his own private militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation, 
also known as GOONs.

Between 1972 and 1975 there were dozens of suspicious deaths, assaults 
and late-night shootings. Pine Ridge was a war zone, with locals afraid 
to turn their lights on at night for fear bullets would spray their home.

AIM members were called in by residents who didn’t support Wilson and 
were being bullied by his GOON squad, according to Oneida Nation member 
Dorothy Ninham, who was an early supporter of AIM.

But others felt AIM brought its own type of threats to the reservations.

“We were the resisters, that’s what we called ourselves. There were 
resisters and there was BIA,” said Peltier.

“We knew we were more than just feathers and buckskin, the way most 
people saw us. Indian culture has contributed great things to the world 
... we wanted to be recognized,” he added.

When Coler and Williams rolled onto the reservation just before noon 
June 26, 1975 it was already a powder keg ready to explode.

The official reason for their presence was to find a man named Jimmy 
Eagle. They claimed he had stolen some cowboy boots in an earlier 
drunken brawl.

But many AIM members and Pine Ridge survivors have always believed the 
FBI, BIA and other law enforcement were planning an all-out assault on 
the Jumping Bull Ranch — and Coler and Williams made their move too early.

The FBI has insisted that the agents were fired at first — but those 
claims were hard to substantiate without any firsthand eyewitnesses.

Nobody knows who pulled the trigger that launched the shootout. But the 
agents soon found themselves pinned in their cars by Indians firing from 
a distance. The agents returned fire while calling for back up. Both 
were seriously wounded.

Coler and Williams were eventually killed by someone who moved much 
closer and shot them at fairly close range.

A raging shoot-out followed between roughly 40 armed Indians — including 
Peltier — and a mix of federal and local law enforcement.

In the melee, a young Indian man named Joseph Stuntz — who was wearing a 
jacket taken from one of the dead FBI agents — was cut down by a sniper 
bullet between the eyes.

Stuntz’ death was chalked up to a shot from a BIA officer’s carbine, 
although there was also an FBI agent also at the scene with a scope 
rifle in a nearby tree. There was never a formal investigation into 
Stuntz' death.

“Did Stuntz life not matter? What about him?” Peltier said. “That’s what 
we were always fighting to change — the idea that Indian lives weren’t 
worth anything.”

The FBI charged three men with killing the agents: Peltier, and Bob 
Robideau and Dino Butler. Prosecutors also flirted with the idea of 
charging Jimmy Eagle, but realized that wouldn’t stick.

Peltier fled to Canada.

In his absence, Robideau and Butler were charged with aiding and 
abetting in the agents’ deaths. They argued to their Cedar Rapids, Iowa 
jury that they were returning fire in self-defense — and they were 

The FBI stepped up its hunt for Peltier, and eventually he was 
extradited — illegally, as it would turn out — and brought back to stand 
trial alone.

By the summer of 1976, the FBI was lining up its legal strategy.

An internal FBI memo dated Aug. 10, 1976 — obtained much later by his 
defense — detailed a meeting with prosecutors where everyone agreed the 
“full prosecutive weight of the federal government could be directed 
against Leonard Peltier.”

By the time Peltier got hauled into a courtroom in 1977, the FBI had 
solidified its approach. Peltier was charged as the shooter in the 
murders. His trial was moved to Fargo, North Dakota — far away from the 
Cedar Rapids jury pool that acquitted his co-defendants. The judge also 
barred presentation of the same self-defense arguments used by Robideau 
and Butler.

“The evidence...indicates that Leonard Peltier was not only the leader 
of this group, he started the fight, he started the shootings and that 
he executed these two human beings at point blank range,” said 
prosecuting attorney Lynn Crooks during his closing arguments.

Peltier was found guilty by an all-white jury — and given two life 

A year later, in Peltier's first appeal, 8th Circuit Court Judge Donald 
Ross found “clear abuse of the investigative process by the FBI,” 
especially in the coercion of witnesses and manipulation of evidence.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office was also chastised for withholding evidence. 
At a 1984 evidentiary hearing, the prosecutor had to concede that the 
FBI lab's ballistics link between Peltier and the alleged murder weapon 
was flawed.

But still, the judge refused to reconsider Peltier's conviction.

At another appeal in 1986 — after FOIA requests from defense attorneys 
unearthed more questionable information about Peltier’s original 
conviction — prosecutors changed some of their arguments.

They could no longer say for a certainty who shot Coler and Williams, 
they said. They admitted the affidavits they used to extradite Peltier 
from Canada were fabricated, and reversing their position at trial, they 
admitted there was more than one rifle on the compound of the caliber 
that could have fired the rounds that killed Coler and Williams, 
according to transcripts and defense lawyer Bruce Ellison.

But none of that should lessen Peltier’s life sentence — or overturn his 
conviction, they argued.

“It’s legally, factually and morally irrelevant. To me, the law looks at 
[Peltier] in exactly the same way, whether he handed the gun to someone 
else and had them do it or whether he did it himself,” Crooks told CNN 
in a later interview.

Despite the changing story from prosecutors at Peltier’s 1986 appeal, 
the panel of judges hearing his case ruled against him — using a twist 
of logic that one of them would later come to doubt.

The panel said that while there was a “possibility” a jury would have 
acquitted Peltier at his initial trial if they’d seen all the records 
and data “improperly withheld from the defense,” the panel had to be 
convinced it was a “probability.”

The judge who wrote the ruling, Judge Gerald Heaney, said “We are not so 

After many more years of legal wrangling, Peltier ran out of options. 
His team switched to trying to get him parole, and then clemency.

In 1991, Judge Heaney — who admitted in an interview he was troubled by 
his 1986 appeals decision — wrote a letter to a U.S. Congressman asking 
for clemency for Peltier.

The U.S. government “over-reacted” at the Pine Ridge shoot-out, with a 
response that “was essentially a military one that culminated in a 
deadly firefight on June 26, 1975,” Judge Heaney wrote.

“The U.S. government must share the responsibility with the Native 
Americans for the June 26 firefight,” he added, calling it a “mitigating 
circumstance” in the deaths of Coler and Williams.

Heaney also concluded that “more than one person was involved in the 
shooting of the FBI agents” and cited the “improper tactics” of the 
agency in Peltier’s case.

Finally, Heaney stressed that Peltier had served 14 years in a federal 

“At some point, a healing process must begin. We as a nation must treat 
Native Americans more fairly,” wrote Heaney, who died in 2010.

Twenty-five years after Heaney wrote his letter, Peltier is one of the 
oldest inmates at his high-security prison.

Flashes of the streetfighter he once was still remain - a necessary 
survival tactic at Coleman.

"Some of the guys still try to hustle me, they think I'm soft because 
I'm old now," he said.

But these days, he'd rather paint than fight.

"I only feel free when I'm painting. I've got 20 years good behavior on 
my record now," he said.

For him, the question of his guilt or innocence is no longer relevant.

“Whether people believe I did or didn’t do it, the fact remains I have 
served 40 years,” he said.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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