In a “truly extraordinary” and evidently unprecedented act, a former prosecutor of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, now 72, ill, and in his 41st year in prison for a shooting he has unceasingly denied committing, has joined the decades-long demands of legal experts, Indigenous leaders and rights advocates to free one of this country’s most high-profile political prisoners.
Peltier’s conviction stems from the American Indian Movement’s 1973 siege at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, site of the Wounded Knee massacre of Lakota in 1890. After a long occupation protesting the federal government’s unjust treatment and broken treaties, two FBI agents and one Native American were killed. Peltier was eventually found guilty of shooting the agents, and sentenced to two life sentences.
Peltier remains in prison despite years of legal battles and repeated claims that federal agents lied, coerced witnesses and withheld evidence at his trial; ultimately, the prosecution admitted they couldn’t prove who shot the agents. Peltier attorney and former federal prosecutor Cynthia Dunne calls the FBI’s case “yesterday’s equivalent of a Trump tweet that has lasted for 40 years.” Calling his ongoing imprisonment “one of the greatest injustices in the American justice system,” Dunne and other attorneys filed a clemency request last year to President Obama in hopes he will include Peltier in a final flurry of pardons. Their plea was one of many on behalf of Peltier, from Amnesty International to Standing Rock Sioux Chief Dave Archambault. If Obama fails to act, his attorneys say Peltier will die in prison.
Startlingly joining those calls last week was James Reynolds, 77, a senior US attorney who oversaw the appeal that brought to light many of the flaws of the government’s case. In a letter to Obama, Reynolds wrote that clemency would be “in the best interest of justice in considering the totality of all matters involved.” Reynolds later argued it was unjust for Peltier to remind behind bars – “It’s time to call it quits” – especially given that prosecutors ultimately only found him guilty of being an accomplice. Above all, Reynolds stressed Peltier’s motives: “He didn’t go out there with the intention to kill anybody…He was trying to protect his people.”
Amidst widespread calls for clemency, ongoing efforts by a defense committee, angry comparisons with the Bundy gang, an American University symposium, a film about his life, and the creation of a nine-foot Peltier statue – which was just dismantled for “security reasons” – Peltier’s story resonates most powerfully in the shadow of Standing Rock. In “The Standing Rock People are My People,” Peltier himself described watching the occupation unfold “with both pride and sorrow…Pride that our people and their allies are standing up and putting their lives on the line for the coming generations…Sorrow (our) people are suffering.” Many indigenous leaders likewise cite the parallels between Peltier and Standing Rock: Both, they say, stand for life and justice, have paid a steep price, and play a key part in the ongoing war against Native-Americans. But in the context of “the old Indian war,” argues Norman Patrick Brown (Diné), “Leonard Peltier should not carry the burden of the mistreatment of (Indigenous peoples) by the federal government.”
“Until he is free, each new day is a new crime, each dawn is a new crime, each evening is a new crime against the dignity of the Native people and against the honor of the United States. Because as long as Leonard Peltier is in prison, we are all in prison,” stated Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General.