[Pnews] Let Leonard Peltier Go Free - Interview with a Native American Seeking Clemency After 41 Years Behind Bars
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 5 11:29:01 EST 2017
Let Leonard Peltier Go Free
Kevin McKiernan - January 5, 2017
I don't know which Native Americans killed FBI agents Jack Coler and
Ronald Williams in the notorious 1975 shootout in Oglala, South Dakota.
Nor do I know the identity of the federal lawman who shot and killed Joe
Stuntz, the American Indian Movement (AIM) member. But what is troubling
is that federal prosecutors don't know either, yet Leonard Peltier has
spent 41 years behind bars for the FBI agents' deaths. Now, in the
waning days of the Obama administration, Peltier has petitioned
to commute his sentence.
I was there on the Jumping Bull ranch on that hot June day in 1975 when
some of the bullets were flying, and I've been able to interview Peltier
several times since then, most recently from Florida's maximum-security
Coleman penitentiary. The audio file of that conversation is below, and
edited-for print extracts follow this story.
Over the last four decades, many groups, including Amnesty International
have advocated for Peltier's release. Amnesty maintains that Leonard
Peltier, who is 72 and in ill health, did not get a fair trial. The
former director of Amnesty International U.S.A., Jack Healey, has
produced 11 video testimonials
<https://www.facebook.com/pg/iwillask/videos/> for Peltier's release in
recent years from famous actors and musicians, including Ringo Starr,
Bonnie Raitt, Harry Belafonte, and the late Pete Seeger.
Over the course of his imprisonment, Healey said, high-profile advocates
such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, and actor Robert De
Niro all have lobbied the White House to free Peltier. In the last six
months, he said, Robert Redford, who produced the documentary Incident
at Oglala <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpnfFe4wLa8> about the 1975
shootout and its aftermath, has met with President Obama to make the
case in person. A former Franciscan priest, Healey said he is sending a
message to Pope Francis through his friend Boston Cardinal O'Malley: “If
I can reach the Holy Father to reach President Obama, I’ve done my job.”
President Obama now has two weeks — until January 20 — to decide whether
to release Leonard Peltier.
Though Peltier's current clemency plea is on humanitarian grounds for
his age and declining health, the violations of legal procedure that
occurred during trial continue to astound. The government has never
produced an eyewitness to the deaths of the agents. The prime witness
during Peltier's extradition from Canada, Myrtle Poor Bear
<https://vimeo.com/197202552>, later recanted, saying she'd signed three
affidavits under pressure from FBI agents. When she tried to come
forward to tell her story at Peltier's trial, the North Dakota judge
ruled her incompetent and barred that testimony.
The U.S. Attorney was castigated by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals
for its use of the “fabricated evidence” — which prosecutors later
acknowledged to be false — to secure Peltier's extradition. In the past,
Peltier has admitted to “firing in their direction,” meaning toward the
FBI agents during the shootout, but said he did so “because they were
firing at me.” The appeals court also chastised prosecutors for
misconduct in withholding from the jury a key ballistics test that
eliminated Peltier's gun as the murder weapon.
Peltier was indicted on the same evidence that ended up acquitting his
two codefendants on the grounds of self-defense. However, his
codefendants' trial was held separately, before an all-white jury, in
Iowa. Their jury heard evidence from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
about the "climate of fear" on the reservation between 1973 — when
Indian activists occupied Wounded Knee for 10 weeks — and the shootout
in 1975. Peltier told me, "Conditions there were worse than third world
countries. … People … were being murdered, and people were living in
His codefendants' jury also learned of an FBI connection to an anti-AIM
group that called itself the GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation).
Some jurors said afterward that testimony countered the FBI's claim of
neutrality between Indian factions following the Wounded Knee siege.
Testimony about casualties during that 71-day siege in 1973 (in which
two Indians were shot to death, and two lawmen and a dozen Indians
wounded) was also blocked at Peltier's trial.
In fact, the climate of fear back then matched anything I have
experienced in reporting from war zones in Central America and the
Middle East. Former U.S. Senator James Abourzek (D-SD) told me that the
near-lawless atmosphere on the reservation approached "total anarchy."
In those days almost everyone was armed and the reservation resembled
the Wild West. I once was threatened with guns in my face when I tried
to film a GOON squad roadblock; on another occasion I was slammed up
against a wall by GOONs, who tended to perceive the entire press corps
as AIM sympathizers. The brakes on my car were cut, and, on one
occasion, a high-powered rifle blew a hole in an automobile in which I
My experiences pale by comparison to the beatings, fire-bombings, and
drive-by shootings were common during the period; at least 28 murders of
Indians still remain unsolved, and the Oglala Sioux tribe has repeatedly
petitioned the federal government to reopen these cases
Former Senior U.S. District Judge Fred Nichol, who tried many of the
Wounded Knee cases, told me in a filmed interview, "The FBI and the GOON
squad worked pretty much together … because they were against AIM." In a
1984 televised interview <https://vimeo.com/197927711> that I conducted
for PBS /Frontline/, a leader of the GOON squad claimed that FBI agents
provided his group with intelligence on AIM and, in one instance, "armor
piercing" bullets for use against AIM members who, like the GOONs, were
heavily armed at the time.
Fourteen years after Peltier’s 1977 conviction, Gerald W. Heaney, chief
judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals that upheld the verdict, surprised
court watchers by petitioning the White House to commute Peltier's
sentence. Heaney later told 60 Minutes that Peltier’s was the most
difficult case of his career in light of governmental misconduct, which
he branded “a disgrace.” Advocating for Peltier’s release in his 1991
letter, Heaney said the government “must share the responsibility” for
the deaths of the two agents and Joe Stuntz in the shootout. He said the
government had "overreacted" to the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee.
Instead of "carefully considering the legitimate grievances of Native
Americans," he said, "the response was essentially a military one that
culminated in a deadly firefight on June 26, 1975.” According to Judge
Heaney, “the government’s role in escalating the conflict into a
firefight … can properly be considered as a mitigating circumstance.”
At press time, Peltier's clemency attorney, Cynthia Dunne, a former
assistant U.S. Attorney, released a letter from James H. Reynolds, the
U.S. Attorney who had overseen the government’s opposition to Peltier’s
appeals. He wrote to President Obama in support of the bid for clemency.
Reynolds said his change of heart was "in the best interest of Justice
in considering the totality of all matters involved."
According to Jack Healey, the former Amnesty official, that leaves as
Peltier's most potent opponent in the current clemency drive a group of
retired FBI agents who had pressured the Clinton administration
not to release Peltier.
As Bill Clinton's term was ending, Peltier's attorneys were invited to
the White House and given strong indications that the president would
grant clemency. But a few weeks before Clinton left office in 2001, 500
agents protested outside the White House, prompting the president to
renege. Today, the FBI Retired Agents Association (which also played a
role reportedly in convincing FBI Director James Comey to announce 11
days before the presidential election that he was re-opening the
investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails) is lobbying President Obama
to keep the Indian activist in prison.
When I spoke with Peltier last month, he was reluctant to rehash details
of the oft-debated shootout and trial, as he had in previous interviews.
And while there is no doubt that /someone/ killed the two FBI agents,
Jack Healey wasn’t interested in doing so, either. “When you’re going
for clemency, you don’t reargue the case. … By definition, clemency is
not about guilt, and even if Leonard did it — which I don’t believe —
murderers are usually out in 12 years or so.”
Healey noted that Peltier’s next scheduled parole hearing is not until
2024, and he drew a distinction between justice and vengeance.
“Leonard’s served his time. If you hold him beyond 41 years in prison
you are talking about vengeance.”
Before he leaves office on January 20, 2017, President Barack Obama
could provide closure to one of the most difficult, divisive periods in
modern Indian history. As Judge Heaney wrote, "At some point, the
healing process must begin. We as a nation must recognize their unique
culture and their great contribution to our nation."
In the last year, it has become increasingly difficult to visit Leonard
Peltier, who contends that authorities are restricting his visits,
especially from the press, in an effort to keep the spotlight off his
controversial prosecution. Only after months of intervention by Rep.
Lois Capps (D-CA) did the Bureau of Prisons relent and permit me an
interview by phone last month. Despite an overall record of good
conduct, Peltier told me it had been several years since he’d been
allowed to speak with a reporter.
*Tell me: What is your ancestry?* My father was from Turtle Mountain
Chippewa Nation in North Dakota. My mother is a Dakota — “the people of
the white corn" — from what's now called Spirit Lake. We were farmers,
and my grandfather was actually from Mankato, Minnesota. After the
Little Crow war in the 1860s, they hung 38 Indians [in Mankato], the
largest hanging in the United States.
One of them was my great-grandmother’s brother White Dog. There were
300-something indicted, and they had 10-minute trials, 10 at a time.
Abraham Lincoln was going to execute everybody, but his aides sent him
numerous memos — this is all in the record — telling him that if he
killed all those people, he’d be known as a mass murderer. So he stopped
at 40. Two escaped to Canada, and 38 were hung.
*Did you grow up knowing all this history? * Yes, I used to sit around
and listen to my elders talking. I was born in 1944, and I grew up in
apartheid conditions. A candy bar was a rarity [and] meat on the table
wasn’t a regular thing. We had to have a (written) pass to leave the
reservation! Even to go shopping in bordering towns, or to go work in
the migrant fields of the Red River Valley or the barley fields of Montana.
The media was doing major articles, calling us the vanishing American
Indians. By 1985, the "Termination Act" was going to be completed, and
we would no longer exist. They were implementing the assimilation
[policies] to “take the Indian out of being Indian” through the boarding
schools, which have a horrific history — I was in one of those schools
from 9 to 13 years old.
*On the Pine Ridge Reservation, after the Wounded Knee Occupation in
1973, were people divided? * Yeah, there was pro-termination; there were
traditionalists who refused to give up their lands.
*And there were factions loyal to the tribal chairmen who were against
AIM, the group you were with. * Yes, precisely.
*May I ask you about June 26, 1975? * Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I was at
camp, and there was some gunfire up at the Jumping Bulls’. A couple of
days before that, somebody down there at the dam was firing off an
automatic weapon, getting everyone all paranoid and scared. He said he
was shooting fish. So at first that's what everybody thought it was, but
by the time we got up there, it was a full-scale gun battle going on.
Until the shooting stopped, everything was surrounded with SWAT teams.
My responsibility was to try to get those women and children out of
there. That's precisely what I did.
*The government said that the agents were killed at close range after a
period of gunfire exchanged from both sides. * The government also said
they don't know who killed the agents nor what participation either
culture may have had in it.
*In other interviews, you admit you were firing a weapon that day. * Yeah.
*Wasn't there an Indian who was killed at Oglala? * Well, somebody
sniper-shot him and killed him. We've been fighting for 41 years to get
that investigated. Who killed that man?
*Were you sentenced for two lives without parole? * No, nope, no. I've
been to the parole board numerous times. I was found guilty of
first-degree murder in 1977 and sentenced to two life sentences with
parole. I appealed it … and the main issue that we argued was … jury
instructions of aiding and abetting and manslaughter and first-degree
murder. Under the extradition treaty, they [could] only charge and
prosecute for first-degree murder because that's what they asked
(Canada) to return me for.
The appeal courts said the most critical evidence against me was the
murder weapon. I filed a Freedom of Information Act, and they turned
over 18,000 documents about a year after I was convicted. Two FBI
documents said all scientific tests came out negative, so this was not
the murder weapon.
In 1984, at the appellate court, the judge says, "Just what was Mr.
Peltier convicted of? ’Cause we can't find no evidence of first-degree
murder in the record." The prosecutor responded with this: "Your Honor,
the government does not know who killed the agents, nor do we know what
participation Leonard Peltier may have had."
*During the 1980s you figured in the Cold War, didn’t you? * Yes. Ronald
Reagan and Gorbachev met, where was that at? Where they had the
negotiation for nuclear weapons. The first thing Ronald Reagan starts
telling Gorbachev is “You have political prisoners in your country; you
should release this man.” So Gorbachev said, “Well, you have Leonard
Peltier in prison. And, gee, there’s no proof he killed anybody. How
come you don’t release him?”
It just wasn't the left that was demanding my freedom. It was in /Time/
magazine. I even had people like George Will, a right-wing columnist. He
said, "Why he didn't give clemency to Peltier is shocking to us."
Fifty-five members of Congress demanded my freedom, 51 members of the
Canadian Parliament, and 50 members of the European Parliament.
*That (FBI) demonstration at the Clinton White House, do you think that
that played a part in the denial of your clemency? * I don't know,
Kevin. I don't know. One of my lawyers who's friends with an FBI agent
said that (FBI Director) Comey is going to oppose it, but right now
they're all mad at him because he helped [Hillary Clinton lose the
election]. She won by over two million votes because, you know, he went
out there and pulled that bullshit he did. That's the reason she lost
*When he came out two weeks before the election and said that there was
more investigation to be done on Hilary Clinton. * Yeah.
*I'm interested in what ceremonies there are for Native Americans in
prison. * Well, we have one, the /inipi/; the sweat lodge it's called in
English. And we have the pipe ceremonies. And here, that's about it. … I
built the first sweat lodge in the prison.
*And now there's the possibility of clemency before President Obama
leaves office. Is there a special prayer that you say? * Well, you know,
we don't believe in praying for yourself. It keeps you from being
arrogant, you know. We don't say, "God, please make me rich." We don't
believe in that way, so we pray for everybody else. So I pray for my people.
*What is your health situation? * They gave me some nitros the other day
because my heart is bad. I need medical treatment. I have what they call
an aortic aneurism in my chest. If this aneurism bursts, I’m dead. My
joints are bad; my hip is bad, so I have a hard time walking from one
place to another. I got all these old-man ailments comin' on me.
*Tell me about your kids and your family. * I'm great-grandfather now,
and all my kids, of course, are grown. I haven't even met some of my
grandchildren yet, because I can't afford to bring them all the way down
here [to Florida] to visit.
*I imagine sometimes it gives you a frog in your throat …* Talking about
it right now … (/Laughs./) I’m doing everything to keep from crying.
Yup. It would be great. I mean, just to see them little kids hanging all
over. They know a lot about Grandpa, but some of them have never even
seen me yet. I hope they all come running to me. I'm going to stay alive
until that happens.
*If you knew that this would cost you some 40 years, would you do it all
again? * We have just as much a right as any race of people on earth to
live. So, yeah, I’d do it again. I’d be there for my people again.
/Kevin McKiernan covered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for NPR from
1973-1976 and coproduced the 1990 PBS /Frontline/documentary /The Spirit
of Crazy Horse/. His new film, From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock
<http://www.sffs.org/filmmaker360/a-line-in-the-sand#.WGXh7mQrJsQ> is in
*What you can do to support Leonard Peltier*
* Call President Obama for Leonard Peltier: 202-456-1414 (White House
Switchboard); and send a text to this number if your cellphone
provider allows for text-to-landline service (a fee may apply) .
* Email President Obama:
* Post a comment on Obama’s Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/potus/?fref=ts&hc_location=ufi or message
him at https://www.facebook.com/whitehouse (or https://m.me/whitehouse).
* Send a tweet to President Obama: @POTUS or @WhiteHouse and use
hastags #FREELEONARDPELTIER #LeonardPeltier and/or #FreePeltier.
* Write a letter: President Barack Obama, The White House, 1600
Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.
* Watch the calls to action by our friends at the Human Rights Action
Then please urge President Obama to grant clemency.
* Also visit the 2016 clemency campaign for Leonard Peltier hosted by
Amnesty International – USA and take action
* The Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA), DOJ, welcomes
communications regarding clemency matters. Express your strong
support of Leonard Peltier’s application for clemency in a letter,
email and/or phone call to the OPA. Make reference to Leonard
Peltier #89637-132 and his application for clemency dated February
17, 2016. Urge the OPA to recommend to President Obama that he grant
clemency to Leonard Peltier: Honorable Robert A. Zauzmer, Acting
Pardon Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania
Avenue, Washington, DC 20530; Telephone: 202-616-6070; Email:
USPardon.Attorney at usdoj.gov <mailto:USPardon.Attorney at usdoj.gov>.
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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