Leonard Peltier in prison when he was still young

Leonard Peltier in prison

Photo from attorney Robert Gifford

A Travesty, Still: Leonard Peltier Denied "Last Chance" Parole

On a day to celebrate our purported liberty and equality before the law - in a time when that precept is daily profaned - we grieve yet another bitter wrong: Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier has again been denied parole after almost 50 years in prison for a killing he very likely didn't commit. Peltier's harrowing saga, a testament to the historic abuses endured by America's native people, was and remains pure "retribution," says his lawyer: "It serves no purpose toward any idea of justice. They got their pound of flesh."

This week's denial of freedom to America's longest serving political prisoner - an act he himself terms "a death sentence" - came after his first parole hearing in 15 years at the federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida where Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences for the 1975 killing of two FBI agents during a standoff on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. The refusal, like all that came before, serves as a brutal reminder that Peltier remains "a casualty of this country's cruel and lawless war against American Indians," argues Robert Gifford, a criminal defense attorney, former federal prosecutor and tribal court judge, and member of the Cherokee nation who calls Peltier "America's Mandela" and cites as proof decades of U.S. government betrayal, theft, repression and state-sanctioned violence of him and his people. "To understand the case is to know history."

Peltier, 79, one of 13 children, is of Dakota, Lakota and French descent, as well as an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. He was born on North Dakota's six-by-12-mile Turtle Mountain Reservation, all that remains of millions of acres the feds extracted from the Chippewa through executive order, coercion and fraud. Raised mostly by his grandparents, his happy childhood of hunting and fishing ended abruptly when, at 9, he was forcibly removed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and sent to a so-called Indian Boarding School hundreds of miles away to strip him of his Native culture. On the area's reservations, meanwhile, life through the 1960s became ever harsher: Children were often hungry, adults often became addicted, poverty and violence were endemic, unemployment often reached 70%, and adult life expectancy was 44 years.

In 1968, a group of activists founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), an indigenous civil rights organization in Minneapolis that worked to end police brutality and discrimination and support Native communities. It swiftly spread to the Dakotas, and by the early 1970s, an FBI and BIA threatened by their activism had undertaken a covert suppression campaign through surveillance, infiltration, legal intimidation and escalating violence by both them and local militia groups. "The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota," said one former prosecutor, "is to put a gun to AIM leaders’ heads and pull the trigger." In 1973, AIM grabbed headlines by occupying Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, leading to a 71-day stand-off with federal agents; AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means were prosecuted, but charges were dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct.

By 1975, Peltier had joined AIM and gone to South Dakota, where tensions were high amidst rampant BIA abuses Natives called a "Reign of Terror." On June 26, 1975, armed FBI operatives descended on Pine Ridge reportedly to arrest a native on a warrant for the theft of cowboy boots; things quickly escalated, agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams radioed they'd come under fire, and when the dust settled both men had been shot dead, along with one Native. Though over 30 people took part in the gun battle, Peltier was identified as the only one with a gun that could have shot the fatal bullets; after he fled to Canada, he was extradited and charged with both murders. Two co-defendants were tried and acquitted on claims of self-defense. Peltier was tried separately in 1977; though there was no testimony or witness tying him to the crime, he was found guilty and given two life sentences.

It didn't take long for rights advocates to uncover egregious federal abuses in the trial: Prosecutors had coerced witnesses, withheld evidence, elicited fake affadavits, ignored racist comments from jurors, and above all hidden a ballistics report finding the bullets had not come from Peltier's gun. The offenses all reflected what former ND Rep. Ruth Buffalo calls "the government's single-minded mission to find a Native scapegoat for the deaths, no matter the cost." "It's telling (Natives) who represent everything we stand for, 'You will pay a price for your political activism,'" she says of a racism likewise aimed at other black or brown people, though those in power are "nowhere to be found when our men, women and children go missing and murdered...It's a testament to these longstanding systems that are working overtime to make sure the first people of these lands seek no justice."

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Over the decades, advocates for Peltier's release have ranged from an International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama to dozens of members of the U.S. Congress. But a vengeful FBI continues to oppose the release of "an unremorseful murderer" - probably in part because Peltier continues to maintain his innocence - in the name of "justice for our fallen colleagues and their families." "Obviously, they deserve justice," notes Justin Mazzola of Amnesty International. But keeping Leonard in prison "is not justice, (it's) a human rights travesty." "The way they have treated Leonard is the way they have treated Indigenous people historically throughout this country," says Nick Tilsen, president of the Indigenous advocacy group NDN Collective. "That is why Indigenous people and oppressed people everywhere see a little bit of ourselves in Leonard Peltier."

Strikingly, scores of legal experts, including former members of the prosecution team and the judge who sentenced him, are among those calling for Peltier's release and arguing his case "would not stand today." "With time and the benefit of hindsight, I have realized (his) prosecution and continued incarceration was and is unjust," wrote James Reynolds, a former U.S. attorney who supervised Peltier's post-trial appeal, as he joined a 2021 call for executive clemency from Joe Biden in the name of "mercy and justice." Conceding "we were not able to prove that Mr Peltier personally committed any offense," Reynolds condemned his imprisonment as "testament to a time and a system of justice that no longer has a place in our society...It is too late for Leonard to reclaim the life he might have had, but it is not too late to end a miscarriage of justice nearly fifty years in the making."

When Peltier lost his bid for freedom after his June 10 hearing - cruelly, the Parole Commission do not explain their decisions - supporters vowing to keep fighting called it "a sad day, but not unexpected" after so many betrayals, injustices, broken promises. Activist musician Stevie Van Zandt was scheduled to testify at the hearing but got cut for time; he'd posited a denial would be "the final terrible chapter in one of (the) most terrible chapters of American history." Peltier's attorney Kevin Sharp plans to appeal, but acknowledges, barring clemency, this was likely Peltier's "last chance" to be frees. His next parole hearing is set for 2039, when he'd be 94; he survived COVID but he has diabetes, high blood pressure, the effects of an earlier stroke, a potentially fatal aortic aneurysm in his abdomen and uses a walker. "Any additional incarceration is just retribution," says Sharp. "It's time to end this."

"My life is an extended agony," Peltier wrote in 1999's Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance. "My people’s struggle to survive inspires my own struggle to survive." Before June's parole ruling, the NDN Collective bought Leonard a house on Turtle Mountain Reservation in hopes he could return "to be with his family, to be with his people," to be with the grandchildren he's only seen in a prison waiting room. His younger sister Betty Ann Peltier Solano hoped "to spend our last years together." Three years ago, in his bid for clemency, he wrote Biden he hoped "to feel the sun on my skin." Last year on his 79th birthday, as supporters rallied outside the White House to again urge clemency, he wrote, "I hope to breathe free air before I die." "Hope is a hard thing to hold, but no one is strong enough to take it from me,” he wrote. "There is a lot of work left to do. I would like to get out and join you in doing it."

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