Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) is a Native American activist, a citizen of the Anishinabe & Dakota/Lakota Nations, and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1977, he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first-degree murder in the shooting of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Peltier is incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman in Florida. Peltier became eligible for parole in 1993; his next scheduled parole hearing will be in July 2024, when Peltier is 79. On January 18, 2017, the Office of the Pardon Attorney announced that President Barack Obama had denied Peltier's application for clemency. Peltier can apply again for commutation in 2018. Barring appeals, parole, or presidential clemency, Peltier will remain in prison for the rest of his life.
Peltier was born on September 12, 1944 at the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa near Belcourt, North Dakota, in a family of thirteen children. Peltier's parents divorced when he was four years old. At this time, Leonard and his sister Betty Ann were taken to live with their paternal grandparents Alex and Mary Dubois-Peltier in the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. In September 1953, at the age of nine, Leonard was enrolled at the Wahpeton Indian School in Wahpeton, North Dakota, an Indian boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). He graduated from Wahpeton in May 1957, and attended the Flandreau Indian School in Flandreau, South Dakota. After dropping out in the ninth grade, he returned to the Turtle Mountain Reservation to live with his father.
In 1965, Peltier relocated to Seattle, Washington. He worked for several years and became the owner of an auto body station. In the city, Peltier became involved in a variety of causes championing Native American civil rights, and eventually joined the American Indian Movement. In the early 1970s, he learned about the factional tensions at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota between supporters of Richard Wilson, elected tribal chairman in 1972, and traditionalist members of the tribe. Wilson had created a private militia, known as the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON), whose members were reputed to have attacked political opponents. Protests over a failed impeachment hearing of Wilson contributed to the AIM and Lakota armed takeover of Wounded Knee in February 1973, which resulted in a 71-day siege by federal forces, known as the Wounded Knee incident. They demanded the resignation of Wilson. Peltier, however, spent most of the occupation in a Milwaukee jail charged with attempted murder. When Peltier secured bail at the end of April, he took part in an AIM protest outside the federal building in Milwaukee and was on his way to Wounded Knee with the group to deliver supplies when the incident ended.
The takeover did not end Wilson's leadership, the actions of the GOONs or the violence; in 2012 the Oglala Sioux Tribal Government asked U.S Attorney Brendan Johnson to look at 45 unresolved deaths since that time. In 1975, Peltier traveled to the Pine Ridge reservation as a member of AIM to try to help reduce the continuing violence among political opponents. At the time, he was a fugitive, with a warrant issued in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for the attempted murder of an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, a crime of which he was later acquitted.
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On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were on the Pine Ridge Reservation searching for a young man named Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for questioning in connection with the recent assault and robbery of two local ranch hands. Eagle had been involved in a physical altercation with a friend, during which he had stolen a pair of leather cowboy boots. At approximately 11:50 a.m., Williams and Coler, driving two separate unmarked cars, spotted, reported, and followed a red pick-up truck which matched the description of Eagle's.
Soon after his initial report, Williams radioed into a local dispatch that he and Coler had come under high-powered rifle fire from the occupants of the vehicle and were unable to return fire with their .38 Special revolvers. Williams radioed that they would be killed if reinforcements did not arrive. He next radioed that he was hit. FBI Special Agent Gary Adams was the first to respond to Williams' call for assistance, and he also came under intense gun fire; he was unable to reach Coler and Williams.
The FBI, BIA, and the local police spent the afternoon waiting for other law enforcement officers. At 2:30 p.m., a BIA rifleman fatally shot Joseph Stuntz, an AIM member who had taken part in the shootout. At 4:31 p.m., authorities recovered the bodies of Williams and Coler from their vehicles. At 6:30 p.m., they used tear gas to storm the Jumping Bull houses, where they found the body of a Native American, Joseph Stuntz. Stuntz was clad in Coler's green FBI field jacket, which he appeared to have taken from the agent's car. The two FBI Agents were later confirmed to have died on June 26, 1975. Stuntz appeared to have died later, during subsequent shooting.
The FBI reported that Williams had received a defensive wound to his right hand (as he attempted to shield his face) from a bullet which passed through his hand into his head, killing him instantly. Williams received two gunshot injuries, to his body and foot, prior to the contact shot that killed him. Coler, incapacitated from earlier bullet wounds, had been shot twice in the head. In total, 125 bullet holes were found in the agents' vehicles, many from a .223 Remington (5.56 mm) rifle.
Leonard Peltier provided numerous alibis, to different people, about his activities on the morning of the attacks. In an interview with the author Peter Matthiessen (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse 1983), Peltier described working on a car in Oglala, claiming to have driven back to the Jumping Bull Compound about an hour before the shooting started. In an interview with Lee Hill, he described being woken up in the tent city at the ranch by the sound of gunshots. To Harvey Arden, for Prison Writings, he described enjoying a beautiful morning before he heard the firing.
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On September 5, 1975, Agent Williams' .38 Special service revolver and shells from both agents' handguns were found in a vehicle near a residence where Dino Butler was arrested. On September 9, 1975, Peltier purchased a Plymouth station wagon in Denver, Colorado. The FBI sent out descriptions of the vehicle and a recreational vehicle (RV) in which Peltier and associates were believed to be traveling. An Oregon State Trooper stopped the vehicles and ordered the driver of the RV to exit; but, after a brief exchange of gunfire, the driver escaped on foot. Authorities later identified the driver as Peltier. Agent Coler's .38 Special service revolver was found in a bag under the front seat of the RV, where authorities later reported finding Peltier's thumbprint.
On September 10, 1975, a station wagon exploded on the Kansas Turnpike near Wichita. A burned AR-15 rifle was recovered, along with Agent Coler's .308 rifle. The car was loaded with weapons and explosives, which apparently ignited when placed too close to a hole in the exhaust pipe. Injured in the blast were Robert Robideau, Norman Charles, and Michael Anderson, who were all members of AIM.
On December 22, 1975, Peltier was named to the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
Peltier fled to Hinton, Alberta, where he hid in a friend's cabin. On February 6, 1976, he was arrested. In December 1976, he was extradited from Canada based on documents submitted by the FBI that Warren Allmand, Canada's Solicitor General at the time, would later state contained false information.
One of those documents was an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, a local Native American woman. She claimed to have been Peltier's girlfriend at the time and to have witnessed the murders. But, according to Peltier and others at the scene, Poor Bear did not know Peltier, nor was she present at the time of the shooting. She later claimed that she was pressured and threatened by FBI agents into giving the statements. Poor Bear attempted to testify about the FBI's intimidation at Peltier's trial; however, the judge barred her testimony on the grounds of mental incompetence.
Peltier fought extradition to the United States, even as Bob Robideau and Darrelle "Dino" Butler, AIM members also present on the Jumping Bull compound at the time of the shootings, were found not guilty on the grounds of self-defense by a federal jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Peltier returned too late to be tried with Robideau and Butler, and he was subsequently tried separately.
Peltier's trial was held in Fargo, North Dakota, where a jury convicted Peltier of the murders of Coler and Williams. Unlike the trial for Butler and Robideau, the jury was informed that the two FBI agents were killed by close-range shots to their heads, when they were already defenseless due to previous gunshot wounds. They also saw autopsy and crime scene photographs of the two agents, which had not been shown to the jury at Cedar Rapids. In April 1977, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
On July 20, 1979, Peltier and two other inmates escaped from Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc. One inmate was shot dead by a guard outside the prison and the other was captured 90 minutes later approximately a mile away. Peltier remained at large until he was captured by a search party three days later near Santa Maria, California, after robbing a farmer who notified authorities. He was in possession of an M14 rifle at the time of his capture but was apprehended without incident. On December 22, 1979, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to serve a consecutive five-year sentence for escape and to serve a consecutive two-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Peltier has made a number of appeals against his murder convictions.
In 1986, Federal Appeals Judge Gerald W. Heaney, concluded, "When all is said and done ... a few simple but very important facts remain. The casing introduced into evidence had in fact been extracted from the Wichita AR-15." In his 1999 memoir, Peltier admitted that he fired at the agents, but denies that he fired the fatal shots that killed them.
A cartridge case from the Wichita AR-15 was found in the trunk of Agent Coler's car, and admitted as evidence at Peltier's trial in Fargo, North Dakota. Also admitted as evidence was the fact that no person involved in shooting at the agents, other than Peltier, possessed an AR-15 rifle.
The journalist Scott Anderson said that in a 1995 interview with Peltier, he sought answers to the contradictions he had found in Peltier's accounts of the incident on June 26, 1975. When asked about the guns he carried that day, Peltier listed a .30-30, a .303, a .306, a .250 and a .22, but he did not remember the AR-15.
The former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark has served pro bono as one of Peltier's lawyers and has aided in filing a series of appeals on Peltier's behalf. In all appeals, the conviction and sentence have been affirmed by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The last two appeals were Peltier v. Henman, 997 F. 2d 461 in July 1993 and United States v. Peltier, 446 F.3d 911 (8th Cir. 2006) (Peltier IV) in 2006.
Numerous doubts have been raised over Peltier's guilt and the fairness of his trial, based on allegations and inconsistencies regarding the FBI and prosecution's handling of this case:
Peltier's conviction sparked great controversy and has drawn criticism from a number of sources. Numerous appeals have been filed on his behalf; none of the resulting rulings has been made in his favor. Peltier is considered by the AIM to be a political prisoner and has received support from individuals and groups including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Soviet Peace Committee, Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), Mikhail Gorbachev, Zack de la Rocha, Rage Against the Machine, the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Peltier's supporters have asserted that he did not commit the murders, and that he either had no knowledge of the murders (as he told CNN in 1999), or that he has knowledge implicating others which he will never reveal, or (as told in Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, 1983) that he approached and searched the agents but did not execute them.
The film Incident at Oglala (1992) included the AIM activist Robert Robideau saying the FBI agents had been shot by a 'Mr X'. When Peltier was interviewed about 'Mr X', he said he knew who the man was. Dino Butler, in a 1995 interview with E.K. Caldwell of News From Indian Country, said that 'Mr X' had been invented as the murderer in an attempt to achieve Peltier's release. In a 2001 interview with News From Indian Country, Bernie Lafferty said that she had witnessed Peltier's referring to his murder of one of the agents.
Near the end of the Clinton administration in 2001, rumors began circulating that Bill Clinton was considering granting Peltier clemency. Opponents campaigned against that, culminating in a protest outside the White House by about 500 FBI agents and families, and a letter opposing clemency from FBI director Louis Freeh. Clinton did not grant or deny Peltier clemency. In 2002, Peltier filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the FBI, Louis Freeh, and FBI agents who had participated in the campaign against his clemency petition, alleging that they "engaged in a systematic and officially sanctioned campaign of misinformation and disinformation." On March 22, 2004, the suit was dismissed. In January 2009, President George W. Bush denied Peltier's clemency petition before leaving office.
In 2016, Peltier's attorney's filed a clemency application with the White House's Office of the Pardon Attorney, and his supporters organised a campaign to convince President Barack Obama to commute Peltier's sentence, a campaign which included an appeal by Pope Francis, as well as James Reynolds, a senior attorney and former US Attorney who supervised the prosecution against Peltier in the appeal period following his initial trial. In a letter to the United States Department of Justice, Reynolds wrote that clemency was "in the best interest of justice in considering the totality of all matters involved". In a subsequent letter to the Chicago Tribune, Reynolds added that the case against Peltier "was a very thin case that likely would not be upheld by courts today. It is a gross overstatement to label Peltier a 'cold-blooded murderer' on the basis of the minimal proof that survived the appeals in his case." On January 18, 2017, two days before President Obama left office, the Office of the Pardon Attorney announced that Obama had denied Peltier's application for clemency.
In January 2002 in the News from Indian Country, the publisher Paul DeMain wrote an editorial that an "unnamed delegation" told him, "Peltier was responsible for the close range execution of the [FBI] agents. ..." DeMain described the delegation as "grandfathers and grandmothers, AIM activists, Pipe carriers and others who have carried a heavy unhealthy burden within them that has taken its toll." DeMain said he was told the motive for the execution-style murder of the AIM activist Anna Mae Aquash in December 1975 "allegedly was her knowledge that Leonard Peltier had shot the two agents, as he was convicted." DeMain did not accuse Peltier of participation in the Aquash murder. In 2003 two Native American men were indicted and later convicted for the murder.
On May 1, 2003, Peltier sued DeMain for libel for similar statements about the case published on March 10, 2003, in News from Indian Country. On May 25, 2004, Peltier withdrew the suit after he and DeMain settled the case. DeMain issued the following statement:
I do not believe that Leonard Peltier received a fair trial in connection with the murders of which he was convicted. Certainly he is entitled to one. Nor do I believe, according to the evidence and testimony I now have, that Mr. Peltier had any involvement in the death of Anna Mae Aquash.
DeMain did not retract his allegations that Peltier was guilty of the murders of the FBI agents and that the motive for Aquash's murder was the fear that she might inform on the activist.
Bruce Ellison, Leonard Peltier's lawyer since the 1970s, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to testify at the 2003 federal grand jury hearings on charges against Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham for the murder of Aquash. Ellison also refused to testify at Looking Cloud's trial in 2004. During the trial, the federal prosecutor named Ellison as a co-conspirator in the Aquash case. Witnesses said that Ellison participated in interrogating Aquash about being an informant on December 11, 1975, shortly before her murder.
In February 2004, Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud, an Oglala Sioux, was tried and convicted for the murder of Aquash. In Looking Cloud's trial, the federal prosecution argued that AIM's suspicion of Aquash stemmed from her having heard Peltier admit to the murders. Darlene "Kamook" Nichols, former wife of the AIM leader Dennis Banks, was a witness for the prosecution. She testified that in late 1975, Peltier told her and a small group of AIM fugitive activists about shooting the FBI agents. At the time, all were fleeing law enforcement after the Pine Ridge shootout. The other fugitives included her sister Bernie Nichols, her husband Dennis Banks, and Anna Mae Aquash, among several others. Bernie Nichols-Lafferty testified with a similar account of Peltier's statement.
Earlier in 1975, the AIM member Douglass Durham had been revealed to be an FBI agent and dismissed from the organization. AIM leaders were fearful of infiltration. Other witnesses have testified that, once Aquash was suspected of being an informant, Peltier interrogated her while holding a gun to her head. Peltier and David Hill were said to have Aquash participate in bomb-making so that her fingerprints would be on the bombs. Prosecutors alleged in court documents that the trio planted these bombs at two power plants on the Pine Ridge reservation on Columbus Day 1975.
During the trial, Nichols acknowledged receiving $42,000 from the FBI in connection with her cooperation on the case. She said it was compensation for travel expenses to collect evidence and moving expenses to be farther from her ex-husband Dennis Banks, whom she feared because she had implicated him as a witness. Peltier has claimed that Kamook Nichols committed perjury with her testimony.
On June 26, 2007, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ordered the extradition of John Graham to the United States to stand trial for his alleged role in the murder of Aquash. He was eventually tried by the state of South Dakota in 2010. During his trial, Darlene "Kamook" Ecoffey said Peltier told both her and Aquash that he had killed the FBI agents in 1975. Ecoffey testified under oath, "He (Peltier) held his hand like this," she said, pointing her index finger like a gun, "and he said 'that (expletive) was begging for his life but I shot him anyway.'" Graham was convicted of murder as the gunman who shot Aquash and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Peltier was the candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party in the 2004 election for President of the United States. While numerous states have laws that prohibit prison inmates convicted of felonies from voting (Maine and Vermont are exceptions), the United States Constitution has no prohibition against felons being elected to federal offices, including President. The Peace and Freedom Party secured ballot status for Peltier only in California, where his presidential candidacy received 27,607 votes, approximately 0.2% of the vote in that state.
In a February 27, 2006, decision, U.S. District Judge William Skretny ruled that the FBI did not have to release five of 812 documents relating to Peltier and held at their Buffalo field office. He ruled that the particular documents were exempted on the grounds of "national security and FBI agent/informant protection." In his opinion, Judge Skretny wrote, "Plaintiff has not established the existence of bad faith or provided any evidence contradicting (the FBI's) claim that the release of these documents would endanger national security or would impair this country's relationship with a foreign government." In response, Michael Kuzma, a member of Peltier's defense team, said, "We're appealing. It's incredible that it took him 254 days to render a decision." Kuzma further said, "The pages we were most intrigued about revolved around a teletype from Buffalo ... a three-page document that seems to indicate that a confidential source was being advised by the FBI not to engage in conduct that would compromise attorney-client privilege." Peltier's supporters have tried to obtain more than 100,000 pages of documents from FBI field offices, claiming that the files should have been turned over at the time of his trial or following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed soon after.
On July 20, 2012, a federal judge refused a request by Kuzma to review more than 900 pages of FBI documents related to Frank Blackhorse, who was among the approximately 24 AIM members or supporters the FBI identified as having participated in the fatal shootout on June 26, 1975. Blackhorse was arrested with Peltier but faced no extradition effort.
In 2007, billionaire David Geffen, a Peltier supporter, shifted his financial support from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign to that of Barack Obama. Geffen said he switched his support because he was disillusioned by Bill Clinton's refusal to pardon Peltier, although he had pardoned Marc Rich.
On January 13, 2009, Peltier was severely beaten by fellow inmates at the United States Penitentiary, Canaan, where he had been transferred from USP Lewisburg. He was sent back to Lewisburg, where he remained until the fall of 2011 when he was transferred to a federal penitentiary in Florida. As of 2016, Leonard Peltier is housed at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida.
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