Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota Native American serving two consecutive life sentences and imprisoned for over 40 years, remains a lightening rod in the Native American fight for human rights.
When arrested he was a leading member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an advocacy group and movement concerned with Native American rights and justice.
According to the organization’s website, AIM is first a spiritual movement, a religious rebirth, and then the rebirth of pride and dignity of a people. The organization emphasizes self-determination.
In 1975, during a confrontation involving AIM members, two FBI agents were shot dead. Mr. Peltier was convicted of their murders, but has always said he is innocent. To some he is a hero and to others he is painted as a thug.
Amnesty International has studied his case extensively over many years and remains seriously concerned about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction. Amnesty believes political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.
In March attorneys for Mr. Peltier, citing serious concerns about the fairness of proceedings leading to his conviction, wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking for clemency.
“Leonard Peltier is now 71 years old and in very poor health, and has spent the past four decades held thousands of miles away from his family for a crime that he maintains he did not commit,” said Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA. “We recognize the seriousness of the crime that took the lives of Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, and our sympathies are with their families. They have a right to justice. But considering the concerns clouding the legal process, there is no justice in allowing Leonard to die in prison.”
According to Amnesty International, in 2009 “Leonard Peltier’s petition for release on parole was denied by the U.S. Parole Commission. In fact, the Commission has repeatedly denied parole on the grounds that Mr. Peltier did not accept criminal responsibility for the murders of the two FBI agents. This is despite the fact that, after one such hearing, the Commission acknowledged that, ‘the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that you personally participated in the executions of two FBI agents.’ The document goes on to point out allegations have arisen that a key eyewitness was coerced into stating that Mr. Peltier killed the agents after months of FBI harassment and threats. She later retracted her statement, and was subsequently prevented from being called as a defense witness at his trial. There are further concerns about the evidence linking Mr. Peltier to the shootings as well as the prosecution’s withholding of evidence that might have assisted his defense. He is next up for parole in 2024, but in January 2016, he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal abdominal aortic aneurysm.”
AIM and Mr. Peltier have been vilified and made to look like common criminals through books such as “American Indian Mafia,” which is chillingly similar to disparaging books on the Nation of Islam titled “Black Mafia” or “Muslim Mafia.” Tony Allens a well-known opponent of progressive and so-called left wing organizations wrote, “There needs to be a new understanding of the era of AIM on the American Indian reservations. It was, without question, a history of brutality, of needless death, where the only changes that were made were for the worse. That was the legacy of AIM and (by association Mr. Peltier.)”
The Final Call reached out to the National Indian Youth Council and the National Council of American Indians for comments but both organizations were reluctant to do so.
Given the current climate of police misconduct, a failed criminal justice system pockmarked with injustices against Black and Native American people it is hoped President Obama will take a serious look at the clemency request, supporters say.
“In light of the concerns that have arisen regarding Leonard Peltier’s conviction and his grave medical condition, President Obama must grant his petition for executive clemency,” said Ms. Heiss.