Leonard Peltier has been in jail for 44 years for a criminal offense he says he didn’t commit.
His trial was riddled with misconduct that may by no means maintain up in a U.S. court docket as we speak. Prosecutors hid key proof. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into mendacity. A juror admitted she was biased in opposition to Peltier’s race on the second day of the trial, however was allowed to remain on anyway.
There was by no means proof that he murdered two FBI brokers throughout that 1975 shoot-out on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But the FBI wanted somebody to take the autumn. The company had simply misplaced two brokers, and Peltier’s co-defendants had been acquitted based mostly on self-defense. This was taking place because the FBI was fueling tensions on the reservation as a part of a covert marketing campaign to suppress the actions of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, a grassroots group of activists targeted on drawing consideration to federal treaty rights violations, discrimination and police brutality concentrating on Native Americans.
Peltier, an AIM member, was there that day. So based mostly fully on testimony from individuals who had been threatened and intimidated by the FBI, and working inside a 1970s-era legal justice system tilted in favor of the U.S. authorities and in opposition to Indigenous rights activists like Peltier, the U.S. Attorney’s Office efficiently charged him with homicide.
By all appearances, the FBI desires Peltier to die in jail whereas serving two life sentences.
But Peltier remains to be alive, now 77 and ailing in a Florida penitentiary. He is maybe America’s longest-serving political prisoner, a holdover from a unique period of justice. Here in 2021, his story nonetheless strikes tons of of hundreds of individuals to signal petitions in assist of his launch. An astounding mixture of human rights leaders have urged his launch over time, together with Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King. Prominent artists together with Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Rage Against The Machine have held concert events in his identify. Elected tribal leaders and the National Congress of American Indians have handed resolutions urging clemency.
And now, with Joe Biden within the White House, his supporters really feel a renewed sense of hope that Peltier could, eventually, have a shot at living out his ultimate years as a free man.
Biden has demonstrated a willingness to handle previous injustices in opposition to Native Americans. He’s made it a precedence to look at the U.S. authorities’s ugly historical past of Indian boarding colleges, to guard sacred Indigenous websites and cultural assets, and to handle the disaster of lacking and murdered Indigenous girls. He canceled the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a serious win for Native American tribes and environmentalists.
He additionally selected Deb Haaland to guide the Interior Department, making her the nation’s first Indigenous Cabinet secretary. Haaland advocated for Peltier’s launch from jail in her former function as a U.S. congresswoman.
For Peltier supporters like James Reynolds, these are all causes for hope. Reynolds was the U.S. legal professional who helped put Peltier in jail within the 1970s. In a rare July letter to Biden that has not been made public till now, Reynolds says prosecutors by no means had any proof that Peltier dedicated a criminal offense and that it will serve justice to let him go home.
“I write today from a position rare for a former prosecutor: to beseech you to commute the sentence of a man who I helped put behind bars,” he wrote. “With time, and the benefit of hindsight, I have realized that the prosecution and continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is unjust. We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”
Reynolds pleads with Biden to grant clemency to Peltier as a step towards therapeutic “the broken relationship” between Native Americans and the U.S. authorities.
“I urge you to chart a different path in the history of the government’s relationship with its Native people through a show of mercy rather than continued indifference,” he stated. “I urge you to take a step towards healing a wound that I had a part in making.”
Here’s a replica of Reynolds’ letter:
Members of Congress need to Biden to free Peltier, too.
Last month, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) led 10 House Democrats in a letter to the president and Attorney General Merrick Garland urging an expedited launch for Peltier. They word that Peltier has critical well being issues with diabetes and an stomach aortic aneurysm.
“Given the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in our country, as well as Mr. Peltier’s underlying health conditions and age, we request immediate action be taken to release him from federal custody,” reads their letter. “Mr. Peltier has yet to receive a fair trial that is free from constitutional violations. … He has served more than 43 years in the federal prison system, some of which have been in solitary confinement. The support for Mr. Peltier’s request for clemency is both widespread and strong.”
Grijalva instructed HuffPost that Peltier has been punished for sustaining his innocence. He had a shot at being launched in 2009 when he was up for parole, however it will have required him to admit that he murdered the 2 FBI brokers.
He wouldn’t do it. His parole was denied.
“Whatever punishment was meant to be meted out to Leonard has been done. It’s done,” stated the Arizona congressman. “The fact that he has held to his innocence shouldn’t be a reason to deny this. He has been consistent about his position from the beginning ― from being arrested to incarcerated to this day.”
The details could also be on Peltier’s aspect. Biden would be the most receptive president but to pleas to finish Peltier’s imprisonment. But there’s nonetheless this nagging downside together with his case: Nobody within the higher echelons of the U.S. authorities appears to need to discuss it.
A White House spokesperson didn’t reply to a number of requests for touch upon whether or not Biden would take into account clemency for Peltier.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to remark.
The FBI declined to remark.
The most blatant query stays the best one: why is Leonard Peltier nonetheless in jail?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” stated Kevin Sharp, who’s Peltier’s professional bono legal professional. “It’s why it makes my head hurt trying to figure this out.”
Sharp didn’t know who Peltier was till a couple of years in the past. A former U.S. district court docket decide appointed by President Barack Obama, he had been on the bench for six years when he stepped down in 2017 over his disgust with obligatory sentencing legal guidelines forcing him to place individuals in jail who he in any other case could not have imprisoned in any respect. He circled and have become the lawyer for one of many individuals he had simply put into jail.
In an sudden flip of occasions, he related with Kim Kardashian West and landed a gathering with President Donald Trump within the Oval Office, the place they lobbied Trump to grant clemency to 2 individuals whose instances they’d gotten concerned in. Both of the individuals Sharp was advocating for had been launched, and it wasn’t lengthy earlier than the story made nationwide information and Sharp’s telephone was blowing up with individuals asking for assist with clemency instances.
One of the individuals who reached out was Willie Nelson’s ex-wife, Connie Wilson, a longtime Peltier supporter. She despatched Sharp a package deal of supplies about Peltier’s case, a package deal that was so large that Sharp sat down and began going by way of it out of curiosity. Eight hours later, after poring over trial transcripts, newspaper clippings and case opinions, Sharp stated he was “floored” by all the issues with Peltier’s case.
“This thing is so riddled with misconduct and just flat-out court decisions that would never happen today,” stated Sharp. “They withheld ballistic evidence that proved it wasn’t Leonard’s weapon. At the very least, we’d need to have another trial…. They wouldn’t have even gotten an indictment because they had no evidence, except for three kids pressured to say they saw him. They recanted all that evidence. And said they were threatened.”
There was a darker factor to the case, too. Among the paperwork Sharp acquired was an inside FBI memo, obtained by way of a Freedom of Information Act request, directing U.S. attorneys to place all of their assets into convicting Peltier. All of his co-defendants had been acquitted. The FBI wanted somebody to go to jail. Peltier was the one individual left to go after.
“This is not about one Indian anymore. This is about the Constitution.”
– Kevin Sharp, Leonard Peltier’s legal professional
Another FBI memo laid out the bureau’s broader technique for suppressing AIM, which is what led to the shoot-out within the first place. The company’s plan was to “continually harass and arrest and charge” AIM members to maintain them tied up in court docket, stated Sharp, so that they “can’t protest their own treatment.”
AIM members working out of the Pine Ridge Reservation had been supporting native tribal members in demanding their land again from the U.S. authorities, and the FBI wished them to cease, even when it meant inciting violence. The bureau was serving to the tribal chairman, who was corrupt and dealing with the U.S. authorities for his personal functions, to hold out violence in opposition to AIM members.
“Part of what’s going on is an extermination policy,” stated Sharp. “We’re taking your land, your minerals. We’re going to get rid of you altogether…. That’s what started it. That’s what the counterintelligence was running.”
Peltier’s case was additionally taking place just some years after J. Edgar Hoover’s reign on the FBI, an period marked by his secretive abuses of energy and ways geared toward harassing political activists in an effort to amass secret information on political leaders.
Connecting all these dots, Sharp stated he needed to take Peltier’s case.
“I’m reading through all this as a federal judge going, ‘Oh my god, this is all proven,’” he stated. “I get back with Connie Nelson and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll help. I’ll do it pro bono. … This is too important. This is not about one Indian anymore. This is about the Constitution.’”
So why, once more, is Peltier nonetheless in jail, regardless of all of the damning proof lining up in favor of his wrongful conviction?
“Politics,” stated Sharp. “In order to get clemency, you have to get the FBI on board. They have an inherent conflict. You have to get the U.S. Attorney’s Office on board. They lied to get him in prison. They have an inherent conflict. They’re not going to say, ‘Oops, sorry.’”
“It’s this holdover with the FBI,” he added.
Sharp filed Peltier’s clemency petition with the Biden administration in July.
He hasn’t gotten any response.
HuffPost talked to plenty of individuals who have performed a task in both combating or preserving Peltier’s imprisonment over time ― worldwide human rights attorneys, senior-level officers from the Obama administration, Peltier’s longtime allies ― they usually all pointed to the identical motive for him remaining in jail: resistance from the FBI.
Justin Mazzola, deputy director for analysis at Amnesty International USA, stated he and his colleagues had been “completely blindsided” when Obama declined to grant clemency to Peltier on the finish of his presidency. Amnesty International USA has devoted a complete marketing campaign to Peltier’s launch and believed that Obama would ship.
“I really think it’s the weight that the FBI and Justice Department carry that prevents presidents from granting clemency,” stated Mazzola, suggesting Peltier’s case raises specific purple flags. “Not only because he was convicted of killing 2 FBI agents, but all of these issues at trial come down to issues by the FBI and U.S. Attorneys that were involved in his case.”
“It’s a travesty of justice,” he added.
Going again additional, a few of Peltier’s supporters say President Bill Clinton appeared able to grant Peltier clemency till the FBI signaled it will trigger bother for him.
“We were told at the time that the Clintons were agonizing, that the night before he left office, he was agonizing over the Peltier case,” stated Jack Magee, a longtime good friend of Peltier’s and organizer with the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, a hub of communication between Peltier and the general public, political and tribal leaders, and the media. “The following morning, Leonard’s name was gone [from the clemency list].”
Days earlier, FBI management had quietly signaled approval of nearly 500 lively and retired FBI staff gathering exterior the White House to protest Clinton probably releasing Peltier. That, in itself, was a shocking break from self-discipline.
“I think Bill Clinton wanted to free Leonard,” stated Magee. “But [the FBI] had issues they could use against him. He had the option of, ‘Go and live a good life, get a quarter million dollars for a good speech, or do this and we’ll hurt you, make your life miserable.’”
Sharp was closely lobbying Trump to launch Peltier in his ultimate days within the White House. He even had colleagues on the telephone with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump one morning, and stated he was “looking for anything for leverage” to make use of to make his case for Peltier. But he stopped getting calls again by midday.
And like his White House predecessors, Trump in the end punted on it.
The FBI’s resistance to releasing Peltier doesn’t seem to have modified a lot in 4 a long time, however the tradition and attitudes round it have.
George Floyd’s homicide and the Black Lives Matter motion have pressured conversations on the nation’s basic issues with racism and regulation enforcement. In a time of deep political polarization in Congress, legal justice reform has sturdy assist from each events. The president of the United States is taking main, historic steps to rectify previous injustices in opposition to Native Americans, and has made vital Indigenous hires inside his administration.
If something, Peltier’s activism from a long time in the past has come full circle.
“Absolutely,” Grijalva stated. “What was being fought for ― to define history in Indigenous terms, not just in white people’s terms ― that was the battle. And that continues.”
But there may be nonetheless a person in jail who shouldn’t be there. And given his failing well being, Peltier’s final shot at freedom almost actually rests with Biden.
“He’s out of appeals,” stated Mazzola of Amnesty International. “He has no real opportunities.”
HuffPost requested an interview with Peltier, both by telephone or in individual at his jail. But Sharp stated the Federal Bureau of Prisons has to present Peltier permission to speak to reporters, and it’s “next to impossible” to make it occur.
A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t instantly reply to HuffPost’s request for an interview.
Reynolds, the previous U.S. Attorney, stated he retains desirous about how Peltier was charged with homicide for being current throughout a violent scene the place individuals had been killed ― the identical circumstances for tons of of Trump supporters in the course of the Capitol assault on Jan. 6, besides all of them simply went home afterward.
He can’t shake the unfairness of all of it. And the racism beneath it.
“Why aren’t all the Jan. 6 rioters charged with murder? They were all there. People were killed. What’s the difference?” he requested. “Leonard at least had a more legitimate argument to make, that he was protesting government conduct and their treatment of the Indians.”
Reynolds stated he hasn’t spoken to Peltier since serving to to place him in jail so a few years in the past. Asked what he would say to him now, if he may say one thing, he went quiet.
“I’m sorry,” Reynolds lastly stated. “I’m sorry I can’t convince anyone else that you should be able to go home and die.”