30 years later, Peltier still battles for justice

Leonard Peltier, the long-imprisoned American Indian Movement activist, sent out a recent message to supporters: “We are all geared up to file more appeals on new information my legal team has found while reviewing withheld documents. I want you to know that we will continue to fight for my freedom.”

In addition to the lift provided by newly released documents that may ultimately exonerate him, Peltier’s optimism was also fueled by his defense team’s plans to challenge the legality of his trial under the provisions of the Indian Crimes Act.

The case has more than just historical interest, given the persistence of U.S. government racism and neglect toward Indian peoples and the disproportionately high rates of imprisonment of Indian youth in South Dakota and elsewhere.

Peltier, 61, was convicted of killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on June 26, 1975, a crime he says he did not commit.

Feb. 6 will mark the 30th anniversary of his imprisonment. He remains incarcerated even though the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized in 1984 that (1) the prosecution withheld evidence from Peltier’s defense team, (2) the prosecutor admitted the government doesn’t know who shot the agents and (3) FBI expert Evan Hodge may have lied about ballistics tests allegedly linking Peltier to the crime.

Two other AIM activists were found not guilty of killing those agents on the grounds of self-defense in a separate trial.

In the early 1980s, Peltier’s attorneys submitted a request for his FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Initially, 12,000 pages were released in full or in part, with another 6,000 pages withheld on grounds of “national security.” Not until 2004 did it emerge that the FBI actually has at least 142,579 pages never made available to Peltier or his attorneys.

Among other things, the newly released documents reveal that Peltier’s defense team in the late 1970s may have been infiltrated by the FBI.

At a recent East Coast campus showing of “Incident at Oglala,” a documentary about the 1975 events at Pine Ridge, one of Peltier’s current lawyers, Barry Bachrach, urged the audience to listen carefully to former U.S. Attorney Evan Hultman. Hultman states that there was no evidence to suggest that statements by an Indian woman, Myrtle Poor Bear, were false.

Recently released documents, however, suggest that Hultman knew they were false and selectively presented excerpts from her statements to Canadian authorities in order to extradite Peltier. Poor Bear states in the 1992 documentary that she was intimidated by FBI agents into claiming she was Peltier’s girlfriend and into testifying that she saw him shoot the two FBI agents. She said she feared being put through “a meat grinder” if she didn’t do so.

In actual fact, Poor Bear didn’t even know what Peltier looked like until he walked into the courtroom. When it came time for the trial, she could not testify because the judge ruled her incompetent.

In another development, Peltier’s defense team has filed an appeal of a July 2005 decision by the U.S. District Court of North Dakota that endorsed federal jurisdiction over Indian territory. Peltier’s attorneys argue that no such jurisdiction exists, and that the trial and sentence imposed on their client were therefore illegal.

“We feel that the court blatantly ignored jurisdiction laws when it denied Leonard’s original motion,” wrote Bachrach. “We hope that this appeal will convince the court that it had no jurisdiction to convict Mr. Peltier under the crimes for which he was convicted, those convictions must be set aside as a matter of law. The history of the Constitution, and the statutes implicated, unequivocally establish that Mr. Peltier was not convicted under the Indian Crimes Act, which is the only possible authority under which the government could have tried and convicted Mr. Peltier.”

Russ Redner, former director of the El Paso, Texas-based Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, said the outcome of this argument will not “just affect Leonard Peltier, but the Lakota Nation and all sovereign nations that have a relationship with the U.S.”

After an unaccountably abrupt transfer from Leavenworth Prison to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., last June, where he spent weeks in solitary confinement, Peltier was moved in mid-August to the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pa., where he has regained the rights he previously had. Mass protest forced the improvement, his supporters say.

For more information or to contribute to Peltier’s legal defense fund, visit www.leonardpeltier.org.