Leonard Peltier

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Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) 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. Some supporters and organizations consider him to be a political prisoner. Amnesty International has stated that "Although he has not been adopted as a prisoner of conscience, there is concern about the fairness of the proceedings leading to his conviction and it is believed that political factors may have influenced the way the case was prosecuted."[1] Numerous lawsuits have been filed on his behalf but none have succeeded. Peltier is currently incarcerated at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.


[edit] Early life

Leonard Peltier was born on September 12, 1944 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the son of Leo Peltier and Alvina Robideau. He spent his early years living with his grandparents on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Peltier became involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM), and eventually in the conflicts that occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early 1970s.

[edit] Shootout at Jumping Bull Ranch

On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams were searching for a young Pine Ridge man named Jimmy Eagle, wanted for questioning in connection with the recent assault and robbery of two local ranch hands. Eagle had been involved in a physical altercation with a friend, during which he had stolen a pair of cowboy boots.[2] Williams and Coler, driving two separate unmarked cars, in piggy-back fashion, observed and followed a red pick-up truck which matched the description of the one belonging to Eagle. At the time, Peltier was a fugitive, with a warrant issued in Milwaukee charging unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for the attempted murder of an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, of which he was later acquitted.

Williams radioed that he and Coler had come under high-powered rifle fire from the occupants of the vehicle and were unable to return fire to any effect with their .38 pistols and shotguns. FBI Special Agent Gary Adams was the first to respond to Williams' call for assistance, and he also came under intense gun fire from Jumping Bull Ranch.

The FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the local police spent much of the afternoon pinned down on U.S. Route 18, waiting for other law enforcement officers to launch a flanking attack. At 2:30 p.m., a BIA rifleman shot one of the shooters, Joe Stuntz, and killed him.

At 4:30 p.m., authorities recovered the bodies of Williams and Coler at their vehicle, and at 6 p.m. laid down a cloud of tear gas and stormed the Jumping Bull houses, finding Stuntz's corpse clad in Coler's green FBI field jacket.

The others, authorities later reported, had slipped away from the compound after Stuntz's death, to cross White Clay Creek and hid in a culvert beneath a dirt road. With police focused on the storming of Jumping Bull, the group made a break for the southern hills. In the following days, they split into smaller groups and scattered across the country, setting off a nationwide manhunt that lasted eight months.

The FBI reported Williams had received a defensive wound from a bullet which passed through his right hand into his head, killing him instantly. Coler, incapacitated from earlier bullet wounds, had been shot twice in the head execution style. In total 125 bullet holes were found in the agents' vehicles, many from a .223 (5.56 mm) rifle. The FBI investigation concluded the agents were executed at close range by the same .223 caliber rifle.

[edit] Aftermath

On September 5, 1975, Agent Williams' handgun, and shells from both Agents' handguns, were found in a vehicle near a residence where Dino Butler was arrested.

On September 9, 1975, Peltier purchased a Plymouth station wagon in Denver, Colorado. The FBI sent out descriptions of it and a recreational vehicle (RV) in which Peltier and associates were believed to be traveling. An Oregon State Trooper stopped the vehicles based on the descriptions and ordered the driver of the RV to exit, but after a brief exchange of gunfire, Peltier escaped on foot. Authorities later identified the driver as Peltier. Agent Coler's handgun was found in a bag under the front seat of the RV, where authorities reported also finding Peltier's thumb print. On December 22, 1975 he became the 335th person named by the FBI to the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

On September 10, 1975, a station wagon blew up on the Kansas Turnpike near Wichita, and a burned-up AR-15 was recovered, along with Agent Coler's .38 Special revolver. The car was loaded with weapons and explosives which were apparently accidentally ignited when placed too close to a hole in the exhaust pipe. Present in the car among others were Robert Robideau, Norman Charles, and Michael Anderson, said to be associates of Peltier.

Peltier fled to Hinton, Alberta, Canada, where he hid out at a friend's cabin. He was eventually apprehended by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) on February 6, 1976. Peltier was not armed at the time of his arrest.

Peltier fought extradition to the United States, a decision that backfired when Bob Robideau and Darelle "Dino" Butler, AIM members also present on the Jumping Bull compound at the time of the shootings, were found not guilty on the grounds of self-defense by a federal jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As Peltier fled to Canada and then fought extradition, he arrived too late to be tried with Robideau and Butler and was tried separately.

At his trial in United States District Court for the District of North Dakota in Fargo, North Dakota, a jury convicted Peltier of the murders of Coler and Williams and the judge sentenced him in April 1977 to two consecutive life sentences. After a series of appeals, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed Peltier's conviction in July 1993.[3]

[edit] Alleged trial irregularities

There has been debate over Peltier’s guilt and the fairness of his trial. Several allegations have been made by Peltier’s supporters which they claim point to his innocence, and all of these have been disputed by the FBI:

  • An FBI agent who testified that the agents followed a pickup truck onto the scene (a vehicle that could not be tied to Peltier) is alleged to have later changed his account to describe a red and white van, a vehicle type which Peltier did drive. Further, as the FBI did not record radio communications in 1975, there was an unresolved discrepancy between Agents as to whether Williams said he was pursuing a "red and white van" or "pickup truck."
  • Three witnesses testified they saw Peltier approach the slain officers' vehicle. They later alleged that the FBI had threatened and forced them to testify. The FBI answered that the witnesses' testimony was not necessary for conviction.
  • An FBI ballistics expert testified that a shell casing found near the dead agents' bodies matched the gun tied to Peltier. Critics argued that an FBI teletype stating the firing pin of the recovered weapon did not match the shell casings proved that Peltier’s weapon was not the murder weapon.[citation needed] It was counter-argued in testimony by the FBI that although the marks from the firing pin did not match those on the casing, the firing pin had probably been replaced after the murders, and that the marks made by the rifle’s extractor were an exact match to the recovered weapon.

[edit] Post-trial debate and developments

Peltier's conviction sparked great controversy and has drawn criticism from a number of sources. Numerous appeals have been filed on his behalf; none of the resulting rulings have been made in his favor. Peltier is considered by some to be a political prisoner and has received support from individuals and groups including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Amnesty International, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), the European Parliament[4], the Belgian Parliament[5], the Italian Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Peltier's supporters have given two different rationales for overturning the conviction. One argument asserts that Peltier did not commit the murders, and that he either had no knowledge of the murders (as he told CNN in 1999), or that he has knowledge implicating others which he will never reveal, or (as told in Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse) that he approached and searched the agents but did not execute them. The other rationale holds that the killings (no matter who committed them) occurred during a war-like atmosphere on the reservation in which FBI agents were terrorizing residents in the wake of the Pine Ridge standoff in 1972.

Near the end of President Bill Clinton's presidency in 2000, rumors began circulating that he was considering granting Peltier clemency. This led to a campaign against the possibility, culminating in a protest outside the White House by about five hundred FBI agents and their families, and a letter opposing clemency from then FBI director Louis Freeh.[citation needed] Clinton did not grant Peltier clemency.

In 2002, Peltier filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the FBI, Louis Freeh, and a long list of FBI agents who had participated in the campaign against his clemency petition, alleging that they "engaged in a systematic and officially sanctioned campaign of misinformation and disinformation." On March 22, 2004, the suit was dismissed. [6]

In 2003 News from Indian Country publisher Paul DeMain wrote that an "unnamed delegation" with knowledge of the incident told him, "Peltier was responsible for the close range execution of the agents..." DeMain described the delegation as "grandfathers and grandmothers, AIM activists, Pipe Carriers and others who have carried a heavy unhealthy burden within them that has taken its toll."[7]

In an editorial written in early 2003, DeMain stated that the motive for the execution-style murder of AIM activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash "allegedly was her knowledge that Leonard Peltier had shot the two agents, as he was convicted." DeMain did not accuse Peltier of participation in the murder. (In 2002 two other AIM members were indicted for the murder.) In response, Peltier launched a libel lawsuit on May 1, 2003, against DeMain. On May 25, 2004, Peltier withdrew the suit after he and DeMain reached a settlement, which involved DeMain issuing a statement where he wrote, “…I do not believe that Leonard Peltier received a fair trial in connection with the murders of which he was convicted. Certainly he is entitled to one. Nor do I believe, according to the evidence and testimony I now have, that Mr. Peltier had any involvement in the death of Anna Mae Aquash.’’[8][9] DeMain did not, however, retract his central allegations: That Peltier was in fact guilty of the murders, and that Aquash's murderer or murderers' motive was the fear that she might inform on Peltier. [10]

In February 2004, Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud was tried for the murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, and found guilty. On June 26, 2007, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ordered the extradition of John Graham to the United States, to stand trial for his alleged role in the murder of Annie Mae Aquash.[11]

In Looking Cloud's trial, the prosecution argued that AIM's suspicion of Aquash stemmed from her having heard Peltier admit to the murders. The prosecution called as a witness Darlene “Kamook” Nichols, former wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks. She testified that in late 1975 Peltier confessed to shooting the FBI agents to a group of AIM activists who were at that time on the run from law enforcement. The fugitives included Nichols, her sister Bernie, her husband Dennis Banks, and Aquash, among several others. Nichols alleged that Peltier said, “The mother fucker was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.”[12] Bernie Nichols-Lafferty also gave the same account of Peltier’s statement.[13] Other witnesses have testified that once Aquash came under suspicion of being an informant, Peltier interrogated her on the matter while holding a gun to her head.[14] Peltier and David Hill later had Aquash participate in bomb-making so that her fingerprints would be on the bombs. The trio then planted these bombs at two power plants on the Pine Ridge reservation.[15]

On February 10, 2004, Peltier issued a statement: “Kamook's testimony was like being stabbed in the heart while simultaneously being told your sister just died.” Peltier denounced Kamook Nichol's courtroom accusations as false, saying “I loved Kamook as my own family. I can't believe the $43,000 the FBI gave her was a determining factor for her to perjure herself on the witness stand. There must have been some extreme threat the FBI or their cronies put upon her.”[16]

After the Looking Cloud trial, Darlene Nichols married Robert Ecoffey, Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement Services, who was instrumental in the investigation that led to Looking Cloud's conviction. During the trial Nichols acknowledged receiving $42,000 from the FBI in connection with her cooperation on the case,[17] money she explained was compensation for her expenses in traveling to collect evidence by wearing a wire while visiting her ex-husband, Dennis Banks. Some of the money was for moving expenses so that she could move because of her fear of Banks.[12]

Bruce Ellison – who has been Leonard Peltier's lawyer since the 1970s[18] -- invoked his fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to testify at the grand jury hearings leading up to the Looking Cloud trial in 2003, or in the trial itself. During the trial, the federal prosecutor named Ellison as a co-conspirator in the Aquash case.[19] Witnesses state that Ellison participated in interrogating Annie Mae Aquash on Dec. 11, 1975, shortly before her murder. [20]

In a February 27, 2006, decision, U.S. District Judge William Skretny ruled that the FBI did not have to hand over five of 812 documents relating to Peltier and held at their Buffalo field office. He ruled that those particular documents were exempted on the grounds of “national security and FBI agent/informant protection.” In his opinion Judge Skretny wrote, “Plaintiff has not established the existence of bad faith or provided any evidence contradicting (the FBI's) claim that the release of these documents would endanger national security or would impair this country's relationship with a foreign government.” In response, Michael Kuzma, a Buffalo lawyer and a member of Peltier's defense team said, “We're appealing. It's incredible that it took him 254 days to render a decision.” Kuzma further stated, “The pages we were most intrigued about revolved around a teletype from Buffalo ... a three-page document that seems to indicate that a confidential source was being advised by the FBI not to engage in conduct that would compromise attorney-client privilege.” Legal action has been taken by Peltier’s supporters in an attempt to secure more than 100,000 pages of documents from FBI field offices located throughout the U.S. claiming that these files should have been turned over at the time of his trial or following a Freedom of Information Act request filed soon after. [21][22]

In 2007, Peltier became a figure in a political controversy when billionaire David Geffen, a Peltier supporter, detached his financial support for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and funded Barack Obama's campaign instead. This caused an immense furor in the Clinton camp, and Geffen admitted he switched his support because he became disillusioned by Bill Clinton's refusal to pardon Peltier in circumstances where he pardoned Marc Rich, a billionaire felon and criminal.[23]

Whatever the controversy, Peltier's conviction still stands. Upon hearing the case on February 11, 1986, Federal Appeals Judge Gerald W. Heaney, concluded, "When all is said and done...a few simple but very important facts remain. The casing introduced into evidence had in fact been extracted from the Wichita AR-15."[24] Following this, Peltier admitted that he fired at the agents, but now denies that he fired the fatal shots that killed the agents.[25]

According to sources, Peltier was assaulted on January 13, 2009 following his transfer from USP Lewisberg to USP Canaan by fellow inmates.[26][27]

[edit] Peltier for President

Peltier was the candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party in the 2004 Presidential race. While prison inmates convicted of felonies are frequently prohibited from voting in the United States (Maine and Vermont are exceptions),[28] the United States Constitution has no prohibition against felons being elected to Federal offices, including President. (Eugene V. Debs received 913,664 votes (3.4%) in 1920 as the Socialist candidate for President while in prison for sedition.) The Peace and Freedom Party secured ballot status for Peltier only in California, where his presidential candidacy received 27,607 votes,[29] approximately 0.2% of the vote in that state and approximately 0.02% of the nationwide vote.

Party political offices
Preceded by
Marsha Feinland
Peace and Freedom Party Presidential candidate
2004 (lost)
Succeeded by
Ralph Nader

[edit] Further reading

By Leonard Peltier:

  • Prison Writings: My Life is my Sun Dance. New York, 1999.

About Leonard Peltier:

[edit] Film/Video

[edit] References

  1. ^ "USA: Appeal for the release of Leonard Peltier". Amnesty International. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR51/160/1999. 
  2. ^ Multiple interviewees, Incident at Oglala (1992). [DVD] Lions Gate Studio. Directed by Michael Apted.
  3. ^ Chronology of the Leonard Peltier case - part 3
  4. ^ Resolution on the case of Leonard Peltier. European Parliament. 1999-02-11. http://www.webcitation.org/5LSGc933r. Retrieved on 2006-12-27. 
  5. ^ Lode Vanoost (2000-06-29). Voorstel van resolutie betreffende Leonard Peltier. Belgische Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers. http://www.webcitation.org/5LSFyqMKl. Retrieved on 2006-12-27. 
  6. ^ US District Court, Peltier v. Freeh, et. al.; March 22, 2004
  7. ^ News From Indian Country: Leonard Peltier. Now what do we do?
  8. ^ News From Indian County Allows Peltier to Withdraw Lawsuit
  9. ^ Peltier accepts settlement over Aquash murder
  10. ^ Press Release May 28, 2004
  11. ^ News From Indian Country - Former FBI agent says: Anna Mae Awaits Justice
  12. ^ a b "Ka-Mook Testifies". jfamr.org. http://www.jfamr.org/doc/kmtest1.html. 
  13. ^ "Bernie Lafferty Speaks Regarding Leonard Peltier". jfamr.org. http://jfamr.org/didit.html. 
  14. ^ http://www.jfamr.org/doc/troytest.html; http://www.dickshovel.com/annatp4.html; http://www.coloradoaim.org/history/1994RobideauslettertoPaulDemain.htm; http://www.dickshovel.com/21705.html; Steve Hendricks, The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country, 2006, Thunder's Mouth Press, p. 202; http://www.dickshovel.com/time.html;http://www.jfamr.org/doc/appeal_rspns.pdf
  15. ^ Corel Office Document
  16. ^ "Leonard's Reaction to Kamook and the Arlo Looking Cloud Trial". http://www.injusticebusters.com/04/Graham_John.htm. 
  17. ^ "[R-G LPDC Alerts: Begin the New year with Leonard Peltier in mind and action"]. http://lists.econ.utah.edu/pipermail/rad-green/2005-January/017015.html. 
  18. ^ Freepeltier
  19. ^ Aquash Murder Case Timeline by Paul DeMain, NFIC, http://jfamr.org/conspire.html
  20. ^ Aquash Murder Case Timeline by Paul DeMain, NFIC, http://www.jfamr.org/trialtime.html
  21. ^ LDPC email to www.prisonactivist.org
  22. ^ Judge Allows FBI to Withhold Some Peltier Documents by Carolyn Thompson, AP
  23. ^ [1] Maureen Dowd Column Incites Hillary-Obama War of Words, Editor & Publisher, February 21, 2007
  24. ^ The Bureau by Ronald Kessler, St. Martin's Press, 2003, p. 356.
  25. ^ Peltier, "Prison Writings", New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, p.125; The Bureau by Ronald Kessler, St. Martin's Press, 2003, p. 356.
  26. ^ The Circle News. Political Matters: Native Issues in the Halls of Government.
  27. ^ Workers.org. Leonard Peltier attacked in prison
  28. ^ Maine Today: Inmates in Maine, Vermont are allowed to vote
  29. ^ Results, by district, of Presidential vote in California, 2004

[edit] External links

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