A call to free Leonard Peltier After 50 Years in Prison

by Phil Pasquini, published on Countercurrents, September 14, 2023

On Leonard Peltier’s 79th birthday, September 12 his family members along with hundreds of Native American activists and numerous supporters demonstrated at the White House calling on President Biden to grant him clemency so that he will not die in prison.

Peltier, who was convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI Agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams in a shoot-out at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota was sentenced to two life terms and has spent the last 46 years behind bars.

The agents who were on the reservation that fateful day were there to serve an arrest warrant for a man named Jimmy Eagle who had stolen a pair of cowboy boots. According to the FBI, the agents followed what they believed to be the suspect’s vehicle when they came under fire and were both killed.

Peltier, who has maintained his innocence over the years claiming that he did not fire the shots that killed the two agents, has filed numerous appeals seeking a new trail. In a 2021 article The Huff Post reported that “His trial was riddled with misconduct that would never hold up in a U.S. court today. 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.”

Having now exhausted all his appeals, Peltier can only receive a new trial if federal prosecutors decide to reopen his case while he continues to maintain that a new trial would prove that he did not fire the bullets that killed the agents. His supporters are calling for President Biden to grant him clemency due to his advanced age and deteriorating chronic health issues. The White House has not commented on Biden’s position of granting clemency to him. Only one cabinet member in his administration, Deborah Haaland, both the first Native American woman cabinet member and Secretary of the Interior, has publicly stated her support for Peltier’s release.

Former federal judge Kevin H. Sharp, Peltier’s attorney for the past two years, who is providing his legal services pro bono, noted that as a former member of the military, as a lawyer and when he took the bench as a federal judge took an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States.” He went on to say that “when I stepped down from the bench, I reviewed Leonard Peltier’s file, the trial transcript, the court opinions, the notes, the articles, the photographs and I admit that I did not know as much as I should as a citizen of this country about Leonard Peltier’s case. That in one sense helped because I didn’t come at this with any preconceived ideas as to what the answer was going to be.”

He reflected on Peltier’s conviction by stating:

I just sat down as a lawyer, as a former federal judge who had tried dozens and dozens of criminal cases. As I looked at it, it didn’t take me long to be shocked at what I was seeing at the level of constitutional violations, the level of misconduct by the United States government, by federal law enforcement, by the federal prosecutor.

And the thing that so upset me was that I knew that they had taken the exact same oath that I had taken in order to have that position. They swore to defend and uphold the Constitution and in order to reach the result that they wanted they violated that oath. …what they did and how they did it was easy for me as that was the world that I lived in. The lies took longer. And that’s why the freedom for Leonard Peltier is so important. It’s about the Constitution, it’s about justice, it’s about mercy. So, I say today it is time to free Leonard Peltier.”

Paul O’Brien of Amnesty International USA spoke promising that history and justice were on the side of Peltier, America’s longest held political prisoner and that Amnesty International would not let this go as there are “10 million members worldwide of the whole Amnesty family” in support of his release.

Holly Cook Macarro head of Government Affairs for NDN Collective read a letter from Leonard Peltier in which he maintained his positive attitude and hope for release and in regard to his decade’s long incarceration. In reflecting on his confinement, these excerpts characterize his plight,

I am still here. Time has twisted one more year out of me. A year that has been a moment. A year that has been a lifetime. For almost five decades I’ve existed in a cage of concrete and steel. I may leave this place in a box. That is a cold truth. But I have put my heart and soul into making our world a better place and there is a lot of work left to do – I would like to get out and do it with you.”

On hope, Peltier said, “I long to turn my face to the sky. In this cage, I am denied that simple pleasure. I am in prison, but in my mind, I remain as I was born: a free Native spirit. That is what allows me to laugh, keeps me laughing. These walls cannot contain my laughter, or my hope. I hope to breathe free air before I die.”

“The government spent millions to convict me,” Peltier said in a statement “That shows you the value of a freedom fighter. Resistance is power. I have never given up and I won’t start now. Brothers, sisters and true spirit relatives, bars, barbed wire and beatings can never defeat justice.”

Daughter Kathy Peltier during an impromptu interview with a news crew reflected poignantly how she has “never known the man” as she was born after her father was imprisoned.

Before the protest ended, 35 demonstrators were arrested, cited and released at the White House for blocking the sidewalk as the struggle continues.

*Featured Image: Photo by Phil Pasquini

Phil Pasquini is a freelance journalist and photographer. His reports and photographs appear in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pakistan Link and Nuze.ink. He is the author of Domes, Arches and Minarets: A History of Islamic-Inspired Buildings in America.

© 2023 nuzeink all rights reserved worldwide

(This article has appeared in Nuzeink)

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