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Time to Free Leonard Peltier: Open Letter to Obama

Early this year I filed a petition for clemency and an application for compassionate release to President Barack Obama for the release of Leonard Peltier.

Mr. Peltier, now aged 72, has now served nearly 41 hard years, six in solitary confinement. Unless President Obama releases him, Leonard Peltier will die in prison.

Leonard Peltier is in poor health, and is a threat to no one. Mr. Peltier is next eligible for parole in 2024. The last months, at the pipeline demonstrations in North Dakota pictures and protests on behalf of Leonard have again shown the Native Americans reverence for Leonard. The Clemency Petition does not seek forgiveness or a pardon, it asks President Obama to commute Mr. Peltier’s sentence and to permit him to live his remaining years at home.

A Clemency Petition and an application for compassionate release are not about Leonard’s guilt or innocence – it is about all of the issues that Leonard Peltier has come to represent during four decades in prison, including among other things: the historic injustices against Native Americans; the distrust between Native communities and federal law enforcement agencies; the poverty and polarized conditions on Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s which were exasperated, in part, by an ineffective federal response; the ensuing violence that drove Pine Ridge to become the murder capital of the nation; and, the circumstances that led up to, contributed to and followed the June 26, 1975 shootout, in which two young FBI agents and one young American Indian lost their lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

One of the more chilling documents annexed to the Clemency Petition is a report of William Muldrow, who reported his observations to his superiors at the US Civil Rights Commission. He observed warrantless searches, detentions without cause, a military response with hundreds of agents swarming the Oglala Lakota community in an aggressive manner, and federal representatives making false and misleading statements to the press. He concluded that the complaints of over-reaching coming from the Oglala Lakota Nation (on Pine Ridge Reservation) were “sufficient[ly] credi[ble] to cast doubt on the propriety of the actions of the FBI, and raise questions about their impartiality and focus of their concern.”

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Judge Gerald Heaney of the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, who presided on two appellate panels that considered Mr. Peltier’s appeals at different stages (and authored one of the decisions), wrote to the Senate Committee in 1991:

“Leonard Peltier was tried, found guilty, and sentenced. He has now served more than fourteen years in the federal penitentiary. At some point, a healing process must begin. We as a nation must treat Native Americans more fairly. To do so, we must recognize their unique culture and their great contributions to our nation. Favorable action by the President in the Leonard Peltier case would be an important step in this regard.”

There is no question that Mr. Peltier’s release would resound as a positive step towards reconciliation throughout Indian Country, and would demonstrate by Executive action that under today’s worldview American Indians are valued members of our society. As Professor James Anaya, former United Nations Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights wrote to you by letter dated October 28, 2015:

“In my opinion, if Leonard Peltier dies in jail, then he will likely die a martyr and the relationships and progress that you and your Administration have worked so hard to forge likely will be dealt a significant set-back… I respectfully submit that the time has come for the significant interests of law enforcement to yield to the significant interests of fundamental fairness and reconciliation and healing with America’s first peoples… There are very few things that a sitting President can do to signal significant and meaningful reconciliation for America’s first peoples, but as I pointed out in my 2012 [United Nations] report, granting Clemency to Leonard Peltier is one of them. Such action would resonate as a sign of singular importance for the equal application of the rules of the justice system to all indigenous peoples in this country.”

In addition, the National Congress of American Indians, the largest and most representative Indian organization in the nation, has urged reconciliatory action, as referenced in its October 12, 2015 letter, where it states:

“Mr. President, you are faced with a profound opportunity to build upon all of the wonderful work you have done addressing the inequalities that continue to face the first peoples across the nation and addressing the history of oppression and distrust. By granting Executive Clemency to Leonard Peltier you will be sending a statement to the world that going forward America will not sanction injustices and unfairness towards indigenous peoples.”

Viewing the case through today’s lens with the benefit of hindsight, a picture emerges of intolerance, misunderstanding, prejudice, lack of accountability and a disregard for the civil rights of a marginalized American Indian community.

Among the supporters of this Clemency Petition are globally respected scholars, activists, and professional organizations, Nobel Peace Laureates, Amnesty International, the National Congress of American Indians, representatives of the United Nations and many others. The fact human rights leaders in the United States and throughout the world remain committed to Leonard Peltier forty years later, is itself a compelling indicator that saving Leonard Peltier’s life is worthwhile and the American justice system failed in this case to live up to its standards.

The deaths of Special Agents Jack A. Coler and Ronald A Williams was a tragedy, and nothing in this letter or in Mr. Peltier’s Petition is meant to minimize the gravity of the offense or the pain that their families have endured. Mr. Peltier has repeatedly expressed his remorse, regret, and sadness that the events of June 26, 1975 led to the deaths of young men engaged in their official duties. He is particularly sad that the events of that day led to continuing pain for the families of Agents Coler and Williams.

Whether President Obama grants Clemency or fails to “reckon with the past,” his decision will be a star and will set a precedent about law enforcement’s treatment of America’s first peoples. By supporting this Petition, you have an opportunity to stand on the side of history that sends an unambiguous message to Indian Country and the world that our nation respects and values its first citizens and that we are ready to seize a better future.

Martin Garbus
Attorney at Law