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Patrick Leahy

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is seen at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on November 30, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Patrick Leahy Agrees: It's Time to Free Leonard Peltier

The American Indian Movement activist—often called America's longest-incarcerated political prisoner—has been jailed 44 years after being dubiously convicted of murdering two FBI agents.

Brett Wilkins

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy has become the most senior U.S. government official to support the release of American Indian Movement militant Leonard Peltier, who supporters say was framed and falsely convicted of murdering two federal agents during a 1975 reservation shootout.

HuffPost reported Tuesday that Leahy (D-Vt.)—the Senate's president pro tempore who will retire after this term as the chamber's longest-serving member—responded affirmatively when the outlet asked if it was time to free Peltier.

Peltier, now 77 years old, admits to having participated in the June 26, 1975 gunfight at the Oglala Sioux Reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota but denies killing Federal Bureau of Investigation agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.

From the time Canada granted a fraudulent U.S. extradition request for Peltier in 1976, his case has been marred by improprieties.

Senior HuffPost reporter Jennifer Bendery writes:

Peltier has been in prison for 44 years for a crime he says he didn't commit. His trial was riddled with misconduct. Prosecutors hid key evidence. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying. A juror admitted she was biased against Peltier's race on the second day of the trial but was allowed to stay on anyway.

There was never proof that he killed two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But the FBI needed someone to take the fall. It had just lost two agents, and Peltier's co-defendants were all acquitted on grounds of self-defense. His trial was also happening as the FBI was trying to suppress the activities of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a grassroots group of activists focused on drawing attention to federal treaty rights violations, discrimination, and police brutality targeting Native Americans.

AIM activist Joe Stuntz Killsright was also killed at Pine Ridge when a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs agent sniper shot him in the head after Coler and Williams were killed. Stuntz' death has never been investigated.

Peltier was found guilty and given two consecutive life sentences. Now in poor health, he is often referred to as America's longest-incarcerated political prisoner. Hundreds of thousands of people—including the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, and Nelson Mandela—and numerous advocacy groups have called for his release over the years.

Both the Canadian solicitor-general at the time of Peltier's extradition and the U.S. federal prosecutor who helped convict him have also pleaded for his freedom.

"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," former U.S. Attorney James Reynolds wrote to President Joe Biden earlier this year. "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."

Successive presidential administrations have declined to free Peltier, although he and his advocates are hopeful that could change under President Joe Biden. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland—the first Native American Cabinet secretary—advocated for Peltier's release due to the Covid-19 pandemic while she was serving in the House of Representatives last year.

In an action update in October, Amnesty International USA said Biden "must grant Leonard Peltier clemency on humanitarian grounds and as a matter of justice."

"I still hold out hope that I can make it home to Turtle Mountain while I can still walk out under my own power," Peltier wrote in a statement last week. "I remain grateful for the gift of life."

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