Leonard Peltier is 72 and in his 40th year of a life sentence for the 1975 murders of two FBI agents on a reservation in South Dakota. He’s a cause célèbre in a movement to persuade President Obama to commute that sentence and let Peltier walk free. That movement has a lot of star power: South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor Robert Redford, among others.
Peltier is among a batch of potential pardons and clemency requests that Obama could take up in the waning days of his presidency. There’s Chelsea Manning, the former Army private serving 35 years in prison for disclosing reams of classified material about the U.S. handling of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also bids for posthumous pardons for Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for conspiring with her husband to hand over to the Soviet Union secrets about America’s nuclear program, and black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was imprisoned in 1913 for transporting his fiancée, a white woman, over state lines for “immoral purposes.”
Manning’s disclosures of American wartime military decisions and tactics rankled the Obama administration, so commutation in her case is doubtful. Peltier, however, appears to have some momentum.
Besides the celebrities pushing for his release, a former U.S. attorney at the office that prosecuted Peltier is urging Obama to consider “compassionate release” for the jailed American-Indian activist. “Forty years is enough,” the former prosecutor, James Reynolds, told the New York Daily News.
No it isn’t. Peltier should stay in jail for the rest of his life.
Peltier was 30 when FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler arrived at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on June 26, 1975, to arrest robbery suspect Jimmy Eagle. They were met with a torrent of bullets, from what prosecutors say were at least seven assailants. As the two agents lay in the dirt heavily wounded, three of the attackers walked up to them. One, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, shot both in the head at close range. Brutal, barbaric execution — nothing less.
Peltier was the only assailant wielding an AR-15 that day, according to eyewitness testimony. In 1977, a federal jury convicted Peltier of the agents’ murders. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Peltier has consistently maintained his innocence. He and his backers argue that prosecutors never produced anyone who could identify him as the man who fired the fatal shots. But an appeals court found that it didn’t matter whether he was the shooter; it was sufficient that he was proven to be an “aider or abettor” in the murders. Peltier’s lawyers have also claimed that the FBI fabricated and withheld evidence. Appellate courts have agreed that there were flaws in how the FBI — and prosecutors — handled the case. But those flaws, the courts ruled, weren’t significant enough to warrant a new trial.
Peltier’s supporters have always framed the plea for his release against the backdrop of long-standing mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government. But Peltier’s case is not about the plight of Native Americans. It’s about justice for two men who were killed while carrying out their duties as law-enforcement officers. Period.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE