Will President Obama Give Leonard Peltier an 11th Hour Reprieve? It's a Moral Duty
January 19, 2017
Jane Ayers / Reader Supported News
For more than 40 years, Leonard Peltier has been on Amnesty International's list of "Prisoners of Conscience." AI states that Peltier received "an unfair trial" and is a political prisoner. Peltier was forced to serve six years in solitary confinement. He suffers from diabetes and has an aortic aneurism needing immediate surgery. With three days left before Obama steps down, supporters worldwide have been jamming the White House phone lines to plead for Leonard Peltier's freedom.
Will President Obama Give Leonard Peltier an 11th Hour Reprieve? It's a Moral Duty
Jane Ayers / Reader Supported News
(January 18, 2017) -- On Tuesday, President Obama commuted the sentences of former Army soldier Chelsea Manning and Oscar Lopez, a Puerto Rican who has served 36 years in prison for trying to overthrow the US government. Although the president's staff said that he cannot pardon Edward Snowden because Snowden's attorneys have not filed the proper papers, it is still hoped that Obama will pardon Leonard Peltier at the last minute. With three days left before Obama steps down, many supporters worldwide have been jamming the White House phone lines to plead for Leonard Peltier's freedom.
Peltier attorney Martin Garbus recently filed a Petition for Clemency and an application for a Compassionate Release, asking President Obama to commute Peltier's sentence. Jean Roach of the International Peltier Defense/Offense Committee said in a phone interview last week, "The clemency petition was recently stalled within the Department of Justice because the FBI held it up, as they are the ones who sign off on the request." However, it is not clear whether that seeming conflict of interest can interfere with President Obama granting the commutation of Peltier's sentence.
For more than 40 years, Leonard Peltier has been on Amnesty International's list of "Prisoners of Conscience." The international human rights organization states that the United States is responsible for harshly jailing Peltier, who they claim received "an unfair trial," as a political prisoner. Peltier has served more than 40 years, with six years in solitary confinement, and his attorneys are pleading for the "compassionate release" because of his age (71) and health concerns.
Peltier has been denied medical care many times over the past 40+ years. He suffers from diabetes and has an aortic aneurism needing immediate surgery. He also needs prostate surgery. Last month, his youngest son, Wahacanka Paul Shields Peltier, died in Washington D.C. while rallying for his father's release, causing much shock and grief for Peltier.
Over the past two weeks, President Obama has received a plea to free Peltier from the very prosecutor who put him behind bars. US Attorney General (1976-1982) James H. Reynolds stated in a letter to the president, "I was the US Attorney whose office handled the criminal case prosecution and appeal of Leonard Peltier . . . . I join the Request for Clemency for Leonard Peltier by you as being in the best interest of Justice in considering the totality of all matters involved."
Reynolds also wrote in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, "Because of the extraordinary length of time already served, in my opinion, Peltier should be released in the interests of justice." Pointing to Peltier's health, he wrote, "The government has gotten almost 41 years and 41 pounds of flesh; Peltier is old and sick, and in my opinion, any more time served would be vindictive."
In addition, last week one of Peltier's attorneys, Cynthia Dunn, a former assistant attorney general, also reminded President Obama in an urgent letter that "Peltier has served more time in prison than [President] Nelson Mandela, who before his death was one of Mr. Peltier's strongest supporters and for decades called for his release."
Background on Peltier
And the American Indian Movement
Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, was imprisoned as a result of a 1975 firefight which inadvertently erupted on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, leaving one AIM member and two FBI agents dead.
Though a "climate of fear" was established that exonerated other AIM members who were proven to be "acting in self-defense," Peltier's later separate trial was marked by government misconduct, suppressed evidence, false or coerced witnesses, and a fabricated murder weapon. Even the prosecutors could never prove that Peltier killed the two agents, and concluded he was an "aid and abettor," sentencing him to two life sentences.
But after 40 years, Peltier addressed the unfair length of time he has been in prison. In an open letter to civil rights groups, he asked, "How many of you know that when I was indicted a life sentence was 7 years? I was sentenced to two life sentences, so with good time, I have now served 6+ life sentences."
But Peltier was then, and is still today, being made to pay, in large part because recognition of his innocence could have also forced disclosure of the FBI's blood-soaked campaign against indigenous peoples during the 1970s.
Evidence that emerged in Peltier's later trials is still considered by Amnesty International to be "an admittance of proof" of the Bureau's involvement in the murders of more than 66 Lakota elders/traditionalist members in the two years before the deadly firefight occurred that ended in Peltier's arrest.
In fact, the appellate judge in the case later wrote letters to former presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. to grant Peltier clemency due to the seriousness of the Constitutional violations in the case.
For a two-year period beginning in 1973, a "reign of terror" existed, during which 66 native Lakota men, women, and even children were shot in front of their homes, subjected to drive-by shootings, ambushed on streets, and run off the roads. Incidents of rape and hundreds of serious injuries resulted from the ongoing terrorism.
Because of the bloodshed, the spiritual Lakota elders of the Oglala Sioux tribe requested AIM members to come to the reservation to protect and defend the human rights of the Lakota people and communities.
AIM members responded but ended up being pitted against a corrupt tribal police force that was being provided by the FBI (later documented in court) with automatic weapons, explosives, armor-piercing ammunition, and intelligence information on AIM members.
The late John Trudell, former Chairman of AIM, stated in my interview in 1992, "This period was a reign of terror, and with the increased presence of the FBI and its advisors, the level of violence increased, causing a climate of fear throughout the whole reservation."
The Lakota Treaty Council, headed by Chief Fools Crow, pulled traditional chiefs together to go to D.C. to try to communicate with the president to call off the federal agents who were intimidating the native communities. Unfortunately, they could not meet with the president, but met with senators instead.
Peltier Attorney Cynthia Dunne Points Out
FBI Alleged Abuses to President Obama
Attorney Dunne explained in her letter last week to President Obama, "Just three days before the agents' deaths, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (the Church Committee) announced that it would hold public hearings to explore the FBI's alleged improper activities on Pine Ridge Reservation arising from its response to the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee by AIM and the aftermath.
Records annexed to the petition indicate that the FBI immediately was concerned about potential negative press coverage." She explained to Obama that Peltier was targeted, and that after "reports of the death of two FBI agents at the hands of an AIM member, two days following the incident, the Church Committee's hearings were postponed indefinitely."
International Treaty Issues at the Heart of the Peltier Case
Amnesty International has supported clemency for Peltier from the beginning of his ordeal. It has passed many resolutions stating its concern that Native American leaders might be abused, especially when they stand up for their land, their religious freedom, and particularly on "sovereignty issues or disputes concerning exploitation of sacred sites or natural resources on Indian lands."
In fact, on the day of the firefight that Peltier was involved in, Dick Wilson, chief of the tribal police, was in Washington D.C., illegally signing away the uranium mining rights of the tribe. At the time, there were areas in South Dakota that were deemed as National Sacrifice Areas, and these were supposed to be treaty-protected lands under the Fort Laramie Treaty.
International treaty issues have always been at the heart of the Peltier case: the exploitation of resources (uranium, strip mining) in the Black Hills area adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation, the place of worship and ceremony for all Lakota people.
Billions of dollars' worth of resources in the Black Hills area immediately adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation has caused much conflict and behind-the-scenes threats to tribal peoples by paid operatives there to stop any opposition to the plans for mineral extraction. But this area was also the heart of the place of worship, a sacred site for all the Lakota people in the region, and the center of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.
Over the past 40+ years, with the focus on clemency for Peltier, there were always tribal nations adding cries and calls for a full investigation of the government's actions against the American Indian Movement. Twenty years ago, in a letter to President Clinton, Trudell also laid out some of the criminal actions believed to have been the work of the government both before and after 1975: the Cointelpro ambush murder of Oglala Sioux civil rights organization leader Pedro Bissonnette, and the numerous assassination attempts against AIM leaders, the late Russell Means, etc.
Trudell also cited the alleged arson murder of his entire family in 1979 on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. Over the years and still today, there have been serious indications and evidence of surveillance, death threats, murder, collusion with private tribal police "goons," and coercion and harassment of AIM members, and of persons even involved in the Peltier defense team.
Peltier attorney Bruce Ellison stated, "This case represents the extremes to which the US government has gone in recent times to destroy political grassroots movements who raise legitimate issues. Rather than responding to those legitimate grievances in a legitimate fashion, the government responded with military force."
Robert Redford also sued the government in the 1992 to release the transcripts of FBI radio transmissions that could have exonerated Peltier. The Bureau won the lawsuit, keeping the 54-page transcript sealed and secret to date, and even destroying the audio tapes in 1988.
Redford also produced the 1992 documentary movie, Incident at Oglala, which showed that during the reign of terror in the 1970s, there were more murders per capita on the Pine Ridge Reservation than anywhere else in the United States.
President Obama Writes 56-Page Commentary for
Harvard Law Review Highlighting His Focus on
Clemency, Commutations, and Prison Reform
Two weeks ago, President Obama wrote a lengthy scholarly commentary which was published in the Harvard Law Review entitled "The President's Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform." Obama laid out his thorough research and brilliant insight, stressing how the criminal justice system "exacerbates inequality."
The first sitting president to visit inside a federal prison, Obama heard "directly from prisoners and corrections officers," and with this new insight sought to "reinvigorate the use of the clemency power, commuting more federal sentences than my eleven predecessors combined."
Obama wrote that his administration focused on reducing "overlong sentences," stating that the US "simply cannot afford to spend $80 billion annually on incarceration." He emphasized that our country cannot "ignore the humanity of 2.2 million men and women currently in US jails and prisons, and over 11 million men and women moving in and out of US jails every year." The figure of 2.2 million incarcerated, he said, "is more than anywhere else on Earth."
Obama showed the most clarity when he said, "In addition, we cannot deny the legacy of racism that continues to drive inequality in how the justice system is experienced by so many Americans. If we are to chart honestly the path for criminal justice reform, we must confront the role of race and bias in shaping the policies that led us to this point."
Obama focused on "considering grants of clemency to individuals in the federal system" and articulated that the president was given authority by the framers of the Constitution "to remedy individual cases of injustice." He pointed to the fact that the Supreme Court then "made it clear that this power is entrusted to the President's discretion, unimpeded by Congressional limits."
Obama asked his team to address and identify "unjust sentences in individual cases." As of January 2017, President Obama has commuted the sentences of more people than the previous eleven presidents combined. Obama noted, "The vast majority of those commutation recipients had already served far more time than the sentence they would receive today, and 342 were serving life sentences."
The Leonard Peltier case seems to be a perfect example of an "unjust sentence in individual cases," and many worldwide are rallying for Obama to release Peltier from the maximum-security facility in Florida.
The Parole Board Has Continually Used
Reasoning to Deny Parole to Peltier
That Was Not Proven in a Court of Law
President Obama also has addressed his recent concerns about the role of parole boards needing to be overhauled.
In these last days of his presidency, to give Peltier a compassionate release would also finally break the pattern of denial of parole for unproven reasons. There is not a better individual case to highlight the abuses of the parole board's reasoning than the case of Leonard Peltier.
The federal parole board has repeatedly denied Peltier's parole over the years, even once when a parole officer in charge had turned in a favorable recommendation for parole.
In fact, over the years when the parole board previously denied parole to Peltier, they stated their reason for denial was that Peltier was the "trigger man," even though prosecutors had never proven that to be true.
That a parole board can use legal reasoning that has clearly been proven to be untrue in court (and admitted as such on the record by the prosecuting attorney) is a startling abuse of power, and has resulted in additional years of punishment for Peltier.
What Can President Obama Do Before Leaving Office?
President Obama could override the recurring slanted parole board's denials by granting Leonard Peltier an Executive Pardon immediately.
An investigative report by Pro Publica entitled "Obama Picks Up the Pace on Commutations, but Pardon Changes Still in Limbo," revealed that white applicants were four times as likely to get a presidential pardon than people of color, even when the crimes committed were similar.
The report also disclosed that during the George W. Bush presidency support from even one member of Congress, or advocacy by those with political connections, increased the chance of receiving a pardon.
President Obama should consider how pardon applicants benefit from the so-called "friends in high places," and if that is a precedent, then allow for a compassionate release of Peltier immediately. Leonard Peltier's clemency request has been backed by an amazing list of high-profile citizens, politicians, organizations, tribes, humanitarians and celebrities.
Over the past 40+ years, more than 20 million signatures worldwide have been collected to free Peltier, including more than 110,000 who signed Amnesty International's recent petition for clemency, and the 70,000 who signed the recent Change.org petition, and the many tribal nations who support the release of Leonard Peltier.
The Request for Clemency has been supported by:
more than 55 members of Congress,
60 members of the Canadian Parliament,
more than 202 members of the European Parliament,
members of the Belgium and Italian Parliament,
Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
Rigoberta Menchu Tum,
the late President Nelson Mandela,
Rev. Jesse Jackson,
the late Mother Teresa,
H.H. the Dalai Lama,
the former President of Ireland (and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) Mary Robinson,
former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark,
Great Sioux Nation's spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse,
Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Robert Redford,
the late Robin Williams,
the late Peter Matthiessen,
the late Pete Seeger,
the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr.,
Kris Kristofferson, and
the late Coretta Scott King, among many others.
The National Council of Churches, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Assembly of First Nations have all attended the parole hearings over the years to urge the Parole Commission to release Peltier.
President Obama Has a Moral Duty
To Correct This Injustice
The words of Rep. Joe Kennedy over 20 years ago still ring true today: "This government has the moral duty to correct this injustice. Seeing that justice is upheld for Leonard Peltier would amount to a major act of reconciliation for past injustices done to Native American peoples."
Coretta Scott King also stated before her death, "Mr. Peltier's unjust incarceration remains a festering sore that impedes better race relations in America."
In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in 1993, Senator Brock Adams, (D-Wash.) said, "For the families, friends, and agents of the FBI who still mourn the loss of Special Agent Ron Williams and Special Agent Jack Coler, their deaths in the line of duty have earned them respect and continuing remembrance as FBI Service Martyrs.
And for those (native families, friends, and tribes) who honor the memory of Joe Stuntz, they will always remember him as a young Native American who was willing to risk his life to support the rights of traditional people on the Pine Ridge Reservation, far from his own lands in the Pacific Northwest."
He concluded, "Let us now consider the views of millions of people around the world who feel now is the time to free Leonard Peltier and to let the healing begin."
Jean Roach, board member of the International Leonard Peltier Defense/Offense Committee, stated, "The United Nations has made recommendations for President Obama to review the Leonard Peltier case.
It would be such a good faith intention to look at the discrepancies, and as a former Constitutional lawyer, Obama can see the civil and Constitutional rights that were and are still being violated. I pray he does the right thing and that the US government makes a meaningful gesture towards reconciliation."
Former US attorney general (under President Kennedy) Ramsey Clark, speaking at a 2013 Peltier Tribunal on the Abuse of Indigenous Rights, stated, "Leonard Peltier should have never been incarcerated in the first place.
The President of the United States can commute this sentence in the name of justice anytime he wants to. He has the power absolute under the Constitution. Every day, every dawn, and every dusk is a new crime against the dignity of the Indian Peoples because every day that Leonard Peltier is in prison, we all are in prison."
Jane Ayers is an independent journalist of 28 years, conducting exclusive interviews for USA Today's Editorial Q&A, the Los Angeles Times' Interview, the San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, The Nation, Utne Reader, and other publications. She is the author of the upcoming book Hearts of Charity, which contains hundreds of exclusive interviews with world figures concerning the power of the individual to make a difference in the world. She is a regular contributor to Reader Supported News, and can be reached by email here or at Jane Ayers Media.
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