Leonard Peltier struggles on for freedom

After 28 years, the courts still won’t correct the wrongs of the past. On April 19 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ denial of Leonard Peltier’s request to be considered for parole, despite the Circuit Court’s recognition that the government indisputably engaged in misconduct in the prosecution of Peltier.

Peltier, a Native American Indian activist and a recent candidate for the Nobel Peace prize, is serving two life terms for the 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. His appeals have been exhausted.

Barry Bachrach, lead attorney for Peltier, told the Circuit Court that the Parole Commission strayed from its own guidelines when it repeatedly refused to consider setting a parole date until 2008. Had it followed such guidelines, Peltier would have been released more than 10 years ago.

In November 2003, the Circuit Court acknowledged “Much of the government’s behavior at the Pine Ridge reservation and in its prosecution of Peltier is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It intimidated witnesses. These facts are not disputed.” Yet the court claimed it lacked power to address the issue.

Bachrach and other members of Peltier’s legal team recently submitted a formal request to the U.S. Congress for an investigation into the Justice Department’s actions against Peltier and the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the 1970s. Such an inquiry, Bachrach said, “is long overdue.”

Peltier supporters have asked the House Judiciary Committee to include the case of Peltier in their investigation of FBI misconduct following the House Government Reform Committee report on the “Deegan case,” in which the FBI cultivated a hit man as a star informant and government witness, and watched silently as he falsely accused four men of the murder.

Internal FBI documents show agents and their supervisors knew the identities of the real killers in the Deegan case, but that federal officials took “affirmative steps” to make sure that the four innocent men convicted in the case would not obtain post-conviction relief and would die in prison. Two of them did.

The most damaging evidence at Peltier’s trial was the testimony of an FBI ballistics expert, who claimed that a firing pin test of an AR-15 rifle, believed to be owned by Peltier, matched shell casings found near the slain agents. However, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) obtained FBI documents stating that the test proved inconclusive. Even prosecutor Lynn Crooks, during oral arguments for a new trial, said, “We can’t prove who shot those agents.”

In an earlier appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that, had evidence not been withheld from the defense at the original trial, the jury “possibly” could have come to a different conclusion. However, according to the Bagley standard (U.S. v. Bagley), the defense needs to prove that the jury “probably” could have come to a different conclusion.

Another approach of Peltier’s legal team is getting the release of FBI documents to prove Peltier’s innocence. The FBI has recently turned over 797 pages from its Buffalo field office concerning Peltier. The FBI also admitted to the defense team that 140,000 pages related to the case are in field offices, far more than previously admitted. At the Peltier trial in 1977, the U.S. government said only 3,500 pages existed.

In June of 2002, about 30,000 pages of FBI documents were released to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who said he was “only doing his job” by responding to constituent requests for the release of the documents. The LPDC has learned that up to an additional 100,000 pages of files are still being withheld, and is urging people to contact members of the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security to demand public hearings for the release of the remaining documents.

It is also asking people to contact members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee to finish the work the Church Committee began nearly 30 years ago to uncover the COINTELPRO tactics employed against the American Indian Movement and Leonard Peltier. Members of the congressional committees can be found and contacted by logging on to www.congress.org and clicking on “U.S. Congress.”

The LPDC is planning a march during the Democratic National Convention to raise the issue of executive clemency for Peltier.

For more information, visit www.leonardpeltier.org.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.