BUFFALO, N.Y. — An attorney for imprisoned Native American Indian activist Leonard Peltier accused the government Sept. 13 of withholding documents in the case to cover up its own misconduct 30 years ago.
Michael Kuzma asked a federal judge to order the release of all documents from the FBI’s Buffalo field office as part of the larger effort to free Peltier, 60, who is serving consecutive life sentences for the shooting deaths of two FBI agents during a 1975 standoff on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Earlier this year, the FBI released 797 of the 812 pages compiled by Buffalo investigators but withheld 15 pages, citing national security and foreign relations concerns. The Buffalo files were sought by Peltier’s lawyers in the wake of their discovery, through a related Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, of a heavily excised 1975 Teletype message from the Buffalo office to then-FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley. The message pointed to a government informant’s efforts to infiltrate Peltier’s defense team.
The Buffalo material is among tens of thousands of pages generated by FBI field offices nationwide and being sought by Peltier supporters seeking to have his conviction overturned.
At the time of the 1977 trial, the government turned over roughly 3,500 pages of material to defense attorneys, claiming that this was the full extent of their files. Subsequent FOIA requests by Peltier’s attorneys to the FBI over the past two decades, however, have revealed that over 142,000 pages of material were improperly concealed from Peltier and his lawyers. The Minneapolis field office alone has 90,000 pages on the case that Peltier’s lawyers have never seen.
The withheld pages from the FBI’s Buffalo office, Kuzma said, may be “the kind of things that would help in an attempt to secure a new trial.” They might also result in the outright overturning of the conviction and Peltier’s release.
Department of Justice attorney Preeya Noronha told U.S. District Judge William Skretny that the FOIA provides for withholding the 15 pages in question for national security reasons.
Kuzma said the government’s explanation for the exemptions to the FOIA was too vague.
Saying the government mishandled the investigation early on, Kuzma charged the true purpose of fighting the documents’ release was “to shield further misconduct from the public spotlight.”
“The FBI is hellbent on blocking the disclosure of this information and keeping Leonard Peltier in jail for the rest of his natural life,” Kuzma said.
Peltier was convicted in 1977 of shooting deaths of FBI agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler during the reservation standoff and was sentenced to consecutive life sentences at Leavenworth, Kan. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, and ballistics tests, which were deliberately concealed from the court by the FBI at the time, showed the bullets could not have been fired from the alleged murder weapon.
Peltier denies he was responsible. Supporters claim Peltier was framed for the shootings because of his political activism, in particular because of his membership in the American Indian Movement (AIM), an organization that vigorously defended indigenous people’s rights. In the early and mid-’70s, AIM members were targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program for harassment. COINTELPRO tactics included disseminating misinformation, levying false charges against individuals, manufacturing evidence, and occasionally assassinating key leaders of targeted groups.
In another court action last November, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver took the government to task over the case while denying Peltier a parole hearing. “Much of the government’s behavior at the Pine Ridge Reservation and in its prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned,” the ruling said. “The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed.”
Judge Skretny, noting “what appears to be the clearly established government misconduct,” said he may opt to privately review the withheld documents in deciding whether to order their release.
“I can’t just rubber stamp the claim that the exemption applies here,” Skretny said. He did not immediately rule on the request.
Despite his 28-year-long incarceration, Peltier’s spirit remains unbroken and he closely follows current events.
In connection with the Abu Ghraib revelations, for example, he recently told the World: “None of this is surprising to me or any of my fellow U.S. prisoners. This stuff goes on all the time in U.S. prisons. As for what happened at Abu Ghraib, they were and are war crimes.”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Amnesty International, the National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among many others, have called Peltier a political prisoner who should be immediately released.
To find out more about his case, visit www.leonardpeltier.org or www.freepeltier.org.