I was going to respond to the unsigned Chicago Tribune editorial titled, “Clemency for Leonard Peltier? Never”, but James Reynolds, former U.S. attorney did a better job, with less swear words.
In response to your Monday editorial “Clemency for Leonard Peltier? Never,” I was the United States attorney who supervised the prosecution of Leonard Peltier during the critical post-trial period. In December 2016, I wrote to President Barack Obama to support his clemency petition “as being in the best interests of justice in considering the totality of all matters involved.”
Although no trial is perfect, Peltier’s was unusually troublesome, particularly when viewed with the benefit of hindsight. The case against Peltier was a moving target, which shifted from a “deliberate ambush” theory in the earlier trial of Peltier’s co-defendants (who were found not guilty) to a “deliberate execution” at Peltier’s subsequent trial before a different judge, and then to an “accomplice” theory on appeal.
As an “aider and abettor,” according to the government’s theory, Peltier was guilty of the murders because he was present, and he had a weapon. It 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.
Following the conclusion of the appeals, Judge Gerald Heaney, an Eighth Circuit judge who sat on two of the appeals, took the extraordinary step of writing to the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs urging it to grant clemency to Peltier in 1991.
Considering all of the surrounding factors, including the prevailing worldview of the time, the FBI’s role in the creation of dangerous conditions on Pine Ridge, the manner in which the case was investigated and prosecuted and the extraordinary length of time already served, in my opinion, Peltier should be released in the interests of justice.
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.
— James Reynolds, former U.S. attorney, Naples, Fla.
(click here to continue reading Leonard Peltier should be released in the interest of justice – Chicago Tribune.)
Exactly, Leonard Peltier has served long enough for a crime he probably didn’t even commit.
A little neutral-esque background from Wikipedia:
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.
Doubts about legal proceedings
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:
- FBI radio intercepts indicated that the two FBI agents had been pursuing a red pickup truck; this was confirmed by the FBI the day after the shootout. Red pickup trucks near the reservation were stopped for weeks, but Leonard Peltier did not drive a red pickup truck. Evidence was given that Peltier was driving a Suburban vehicle; a large station wagon style sedan built on a pickup truck chassis with an enclosed rear section. Peltier’s vehicle was red with a white roof—not a red, open-tray pickup truck with no white paint. The FBI agents’ radio message said that the suspect they were pursuing was driving a red pickup truck, with no additional details. At Peltier’s trial, the FBI testified that it had been searching for a red and white van, which Peltier was sometimes seen driving. This was a highly contentious matter of evidence in the trials.
- Testimony from three witnesses placed Peltier, Robideau and Butler near the crime scene. Those three witnesses later recanted, alleging that the FBI, while extracting their testimony, had tied them to chairs, denied them their right to talk to their attorney, and otherwise coerced and threatened them. Robideau said during an interview in the Robert Redford/Michael Apted film Incident at Oglala (1992), that “we approached” the agents’ cars.
- Unlike the juries in similar prosecutions against AIM leaders at the time, the Fargo jury was not allowed to hear about other cases in which the FBI had been rebuked for tampering with evidence and witnesses.
- An FBI ballistics expert testimony during the trial asserted that a shell case found near the dead agents’ bodies matched the rifle tied to Peltier. He said that a forensics test of the firing pin, which would have more definitively matched the gun to the cartridge case, was not performed because the gun was damaged in the fire. A less definitive test indicated that the extractor marks on the case and rifle matched. Years later, after an FOIA request, the FBI ballistics expert’s records were examined. His report said that he had performed a ballistics test of the firing pin and concluded that the cartridge case from the scene of the crime did not come from the rifle tied to Peltier. That evidence was withheld from the jury during the trial.
- Though the FBI’s investigation indicated that an AR-15 was used to kill the agents, several different AR-15s were in the area at the time of the shootout. Also, no other cartridge cases or evidence about them were offered by the prosecutor’s office, although other bullets were fired at the crime scene.
- During the trial, all the bullets and bullet fragments found at the scene were provided as evidence and detailed by Cortland Cunningham, FBI Firearms expert, in testimony. (Ref US v. Leonard Peltier Vol 9).
- According to Peltier, when he appealed his first-degree murder conviction in 1992, the charge was illegally changed to aiding and abetting.
- The U.S. Parole Commission denied Peltier parole in 1993 based on their finding that he “participated in the premeditated and cold blooded execution of those two officers.” But, the Parole Commission has since stated that it “recognizes that the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of the two FBI agents.”
(click here to continue reading Leonard Peltier – Wikipedia.)
Obama seems unlikely to commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence or pardon him, however, he should.