In 1977, American Indian activist Leonard Peltier was convicted of murdering two FBI agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier has now served 38 years in federal prison. His trial remains one of the most controversial in the history of the American judicial system.
With the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, activism among Indians for better treatment increased on reservations nationwide. However, on the Pine Ridge reservation, the tribal government hired what amounted to a vigilante force (known as GOONS — Guardians of the Oglala Nation) to quash dissent. Peltier traveled to Pine Ridge to support and protect the traditional people who were being targeted for violence.
Peltier and a small group of young AIM members set up camp on a ranch owned by the traditional Jumping Bull family. On June 26, 1975 two FBI agents in unmarked cars followed a pick-up truck onto the Jumping Bull ranch. AIM members became alarmed and feared an attack. A shootout erupted. More than 150 agents, GOONS, and law enforcement surrounded the ranch.
When the shoot-out ended the two FBI agents and one Native American lay dead. The agents were injured in the shoot-out and were then shot at close range. The Native American, Joseph Stuntz, was shot in the head by a sniper’s bullet. Mr. Stuntz’s death has never been investigated, nor has anyone ever been charged in connection with his death.
According to FBI documents, more than 40 Native Americans participated in the gunfight, but only AIM members Bob Robideau, Darrell Butler and Leonard Peltier were brought to trial.
Robideau and Butler were arrested first and went to trial. A federal jury in Iowa acquitted them on grounds of self-defense, finding that their participation in the shootout was justified given the climate of fear that existed on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Furthermore, they could not be tied to the close-range shootings.
Leonard Peltier was arrested in Canada on February 6, 1976. The United States presented the Canadian court with affidavits signed by Myrtle Poor Bear who said she was Mr. Peltier’s girlfriend and allegedly saw him shoot the agents. In fact, Ms. Poor Bear had never met Mr. Peltier and was not present during the shootout. Soon after, Ms. Poor Bear recanted her statements and said the FBI threatened her and coerced her into signing the affidavits.
Peltier was extradited to the United States where he was tried in 1977. Key witnesses like Myrtle Poor Bear were not allowed to testify and unlike the Robideau/Butler trial in Iowa, evidence regarding violence on Pine Ridge was severely restricted.
An FBI agent who had previously testified that the agents followed a pick-up truck onto the scene, a vehicle that could not be tied to Mr. Peltier, changed his account, stating that the agents had followed a red and white van onto the scene, a vehicle which Mr. Peltier drove occasionally.
Three teenaged Native witnesses testified against Peltier. They all later admitted that the FBI forced them to testify. Still, not one witness identified Mr. Peltier as the shooter.
The U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case claimed that the government had provided the defense with all FBI documents concerning the case. To the contrary, more than 140,000 pages had been withheld in their entirety.
An FBI ballistics expert testified that a casing found near the agents’ bodies matched the gun tied to. Peltier. However, a ballistic test proving that the casing did not come from the gun tied to Mr. Peltier was intentionally concealed.
The jury, unaware of the aforementioned facts, found Peltier guilty. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
Following the discovery of new evidence obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Peltier sought a new trial. The Eighth Circuit ruled: “There is a possibility that the jury would have acquitted Leonard Peltier had the records and data improperly withheld from the defense been available to him in order to better exploit and reinforce the inconsistencies casting strong doubts upon the government's case."
Yet, the court denied Mr. Peltier a new trial.
During oral argument, the government attorney conceded that the government does not know who shot the agents, stating that Mr. Peltier is equally guilty whether he shot the agents at point-blank range, or participated in the shoot-out from a distance.
Judge Heaney, who authored the decision denying a new trial, has since voiced firm support for Mr. Peltier’s release, stating that the FBI used improper tactics to convict Mr. Peltier and that the FBI was equally responsible for the shootout.
During his incarceration, Peltier has remained a strong voice for Native rights while his own sad tale has become a symbol of the oppression that Indians still suffer in America. He has received several human rights awards for his good deeds from behind bars which include annual gift drives for the children of Pine Ridge, fund raisers for battered women’s shelters, and donations of the paintings he renders behind bars to Native American recovery programs.
President Obama has the power to grant Leonard Peltier executive clemency. This video, titled the "I Will" clemency campaign, produced by the Human Rights Action Center, encourages Americans to demand Leonard Peltier’s release in order to restore him to his people.
For more on the campaign, head to: humanrightsactioncenter.org