25, Free Leonard Peltier

25, Free Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier is an American activist and member of the American Indian Movement who was convicted and sentenced in 1977 to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the murder of two FBI Agents who were killed during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There is considerable debate over Peltier’s guilt and the fairness of his trial. 

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To better understand the Peltier case, it is important to put the shoot-out on June 26, 1975, in its proper context and understand that the incident at Oglala was part of a larger struggle—a struggle that continues today. Your Focus To understand the gross injustice of the Peltier case, it is not at all necessary that you agree with but understand the politics of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the struggle in which Indigenous People were engaged in the 1970s. We urge you not to focus on the reasonableness of the basis for the investigation of AIM by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the politics, rhetoric, or actions of AIM. Instead, focus on the chief investigative branch of the United States government (the FBI) and its counterintelligence program through which the Bureau—according to the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, or the "Church Committee"—engaged in "lawless tactics" and responded to "deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest."

The fact is that, with regard to its counterintelligence operations, the Church Committee found the Bureau responsible for: violating and ignoring the law; exceeding its powers with regard to domestic intelligence activity; using excessively intrusive techniques against United States citizens; using covert action to disrupt and discredit domestic groups; abusing intelligence information for political purposes; and having inadequate controls, as well as no accountability. The FBI conducted more than 2,000 counterintelligence operations before the programs were officially discontinued in April of 1971, after public exposure, in order to "afford additional security to [its] sensitive techniques and operations." While the programs themselves were discontinued, the practices that the Church Committee found so objectionable were not. The FBI's intent was/is to continue such practices as deemed necessary and completely at its own whim. That intent was clearly stated by the FBI. It's a matter of public record. It is a fact (and one supported by the government's own documents) that the FBI actively supported the "Reign of Terror" on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; sought to disrupt and "neutralize" AIM; and targeted AIM members, including human rights activist Leonard Peltier. It also is fact that the FBI, supported by government prosecutors, orchestrated the wrongful conviction and illegal imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. Numerous revelations of comparable FBI misconduct have been made in recent years. Whether it is exposure by its own forensic specialists of the fact that the Bureau's crime lab has systematically fabricated physical evidence for purposes of obtaining the convictions of thousands of possibly innocent people; or the frame-up (and subsequent life imprisonment) of three men the FBI knew to be innocent so as to protect a murderous mob informant—or other examples too numerous to review here—the pattern remains consistent. Subverting law in pursuit of "order," the FBI continues today—bolstered by its investigative powers under the U.S. Patriot Act—to employ the vast resources at its disposal in destroying those whose viewpoints and activities it deems politically objectionable, and then to hide the truth of what it has done from the public it supposedly serves. Decide for Yourself As you read about this case, ask yourself these important questions. How would you respond to extreme danger, especially that posed by the FBI on June 26, 1975? Imagine living in the midst of the Pine Ridge "Reign of Terror"—a "war zone," in fact—and being subjected to an unanticipated "home invasion" by unknown assailants (the plain clothed agents drove unmarked cars and failed to identify themselves as agents of the FBI). Having the means to do so, wouldn't you defend yourself, family and friends—including women, children and elders—against bodily harm and possible death? The jury in the trial of Leonard's co-defendants—Dino Butler and Bob Robideau—recognized that the will to survive is instinctive and the right to self-defense is fundamental.

The Indians had a right to be on the Jumping Bull property and they were not engaged in unlawful activity. There was no evidence that they either provoked an assault or were the aggressors in one. In light of the terror on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the previous three years, the history of official misconduct on the part of the FBI in its war against AIM, and the reckless behavior of the agents on June 26, 1975, the jury decided the Natives had a reasonable belief that their actions—meeting force with force, even deadly force, as they admitted to have done—were necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to themselves or others. The jury acquitted Butler and Robideau on grounds of self-defense. Had Leonard been tried with his co-defendants, he also would have been acquitted of the crimes he was alleged to have committed. However, Leonard was tried separately and Judge Paul Benson did not allow Peltier to argue self-defense (even though his actions on June 26, 1975, were no different than those of his co-defendants). Leonard also was prevented from presenting critical evidence as to the FBI's pattern of misconduct in AIM-related cases, as well as the atmosphere of terror the FBI helped to create on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Leonard Peltier was found guilty not because he was guilty, but because crucial aspects of his trial were manipulated to favor the prosecution and, consequently, cause a conviction. Click here to review a table that briefly points out the differences between the two trials.

The Butler/Robideau verdict indicates that the defendants' actions on June 26, 1975, did not constitute a crime. Yet, Leonard is imprisoned, the government now claims, for "aiding and abetting" a crime. What crime? Self defense? In its ruling on September 11, 1986, the appellate court observed that all indications were that the jurors had convicted Peltier of first degree murder on the premise that he was the shooter. Also, as a matter of law, the elements of "aiding and abetting" are well defined, i.e., "aiding and abetting" isn't merely a matter of the accused having been present. It also is true that when the principals in a crime have been found not guilty, as Butler and Robideau were, there is no one who can be responsible for having "aided and abetted." Who did Peltier aid and abet? Innocent men? Government prosecutors now claim that Peltier aided and abetted himself. They make this claim despite the fact that they have repeatedly admitted that they "did not and cannot prove" that Peltier caused the deaths of their agents. But guess what? The government also claims it doesn't have to prove Peltier's guilt. It would seem, at least in the case of Leonard Peltier, that the "burden of proof" no longer rests with the prosecution. And "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" is no longer the rule of criminal law?

As late as November 2003, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that "…Much of the government’s behavior at the Pine Ridge Reservation and its prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed." In a system of equal justice, is it right that the Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned for over 30 years when there is proof that he was convicted on the basis of fabricated or suppressed evidence, as well as coerced testimony? Further, it is a fact that the U.S. Parole Commission has failed to comply with its own congressionally mandated guidelines as regards its denials of Peltier's petitions for parole. Others convicted of similar crimes are released on parole after serving a fraction of the time already served by Peltier. From the time of Peltier's conviction in 1977 until the mid-1990s, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (U.S. Department of Justice), the average length of imprisonment served for homicide in the United States ranged from 94 to 99.8 months. Even if you were to take Peltier's two consecutive life sentences into account at the higher end of this range, it is clear that Peltier should have been released a very long time ago. In a system of equal rights, is it just that Peltier be repeatedly denied fair consideration for parole? The Parole Commission stated at one hearing that the denial of parole was based upon Mr. Peltier’s participation in an "ambush" and the "premeditated and cold blooded execution of these two officers."

Yet, there was never any evidence that an "ambush" occurred. There also was no witness testimony that Leonard Peltier shot the two FBI agents. There was no witness testimony that placed Mr. Peltier near the agents' vehicles before their deaths and evidence shows that those witnesses placing Peltier, Robideau and Butler near the scene after the killings were coerced and intimidated by the FBI. There was no forensic evidence as to the exact type of rifle used to shoot the agents. Several different weapons present in the area during the shoot-out—evidence now shows that there were other AR-15 rifles in the area—could have caused the fatal injuries. In addition, the AR-15 rifle claimed to be Mr. Peltier’s weapon was found to be incompatible with the bullet casing allegedly found near Agent Coler’s car. Although other bullets were fired on the Jumping Bull property that day, no other casings or evidence about them were offered by the prosecutor in this case. In short, there was/is no reasonable evidence that Mr. Peltier was responsible for the deaths of the agents. Should the Parole Commission be allowed to so completely ignore the court record? More recently, it also has been made clear by the Parole Commission that Mr. Peltier will not receive parole until he "recognizes his crime."

A simple admission? What guilty man would pass up such an opportunity for freedom? After 30 years of imprisonment, even an innocent man might be tempted to make a false confession for the sake of freedom. But Peltier steadfastly maintains his innocence. "I don't care if I have to spend the rest of my life [in prison]. I won't confess to a crime I did not commit." After all that's been uncovered as to the misconduct in this case over the past 30 years, the government still hides from the truth and argues for the continued imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. The FBI claims that Leonard Peltier is a "mad dog killer." However, the record clearly shows that Mr. Peltier is a nonviolent man and has never hurt anyone... not before the shoot-out in 1975, certainly, but also not while on the run, at the time of his arrest, or during his escape—very desperate times, times when violence would have been expected were he the brute the government claims him to be. Prison staff have attested to his nonviolent nature and his overall prison record supports their judgment in this regard.

In light of this, should the government be allowed to prevent Leonard's parole with such scurrilous claims? The FBI and government prosecutors say Peltier should spend the rest of his life behind bars and that his release from prison would be an affront to law enforcement. However, the government "did not and cannot prove" that Leonard Peltier shot their agents and Peltier's sentence following his wrongful conviction—handed down by a court of law—did not exclude parole. What is the government's motive for circumventing the court's decision? Justice?... Or an insatiable hunger for revenge? Or are some government officials keeping Peltier behind bars merely because they've staked their reputations on his case? As regards the Peltier trial and his subsequent appeals, how does this case match up with your understanding of the U.S. Constitution? In its entirety, does this case follow the precepts of American justice? Should the U.S. government be allowed to use the courts to "neutralize" those with differing political views? Or to convict defendants by fabricating or withholding evidence and presenting false testimony?

The U.S. appellate courts, by their decisions, have recognized the undisputed misconduct in Leonard Peltier's case, yet have refused to take corrective action. If the courts can't defend Americans' rights, who can? The White House and the U.S. Congress also have refused to take corrective action in this case. Shouldn't our elected officials act on behalf of all Americans? And, finally, as American citizens, isn't it our civic duty to remain vigilant, challenge abuses of power, and protect the ideals on which this country was founded? Educate yourself. Arm yourself with the truth. And demand freedom for Leonard Peltier.


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