40 Years of Leonard Peltier: Innocent Scapegoat or Murderer?

Photo acquired from Wiki-media

In 1977, Leonard Peltier, a Native American, was convicted of murdering two American FBI agents at the Jumping Bull compound on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.  This year, 2016, marks the 40th year Peltier has been in prison, and many still believe that he is innocent. Some claim that the United States government used Peltier as a scapegoat, imprisoning him for a crime he did not commit.  He is currently serving two life sentences in prison.  However, supporters of Peltier are calling for President Obama to grant him presidential clemency, which is a pardon issued when the prisoner’s guilt is in question.  At 71 years old, Peltier has been diagnosed with an aortic abdominal aneurysm, thus calling attention to his health and well-being in prison.  President Obama only has a few months left in office to grant the pardon, and Peltier’s supporters, including Amnesty International, have been calling for his timely release.

In 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, entered the Pine Ridge reservation, allegedly following who they thought was Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for stealing cowboy boots.  The FBI agents supposedly followed Eagle in his red pickup truck.  However, it was never confirmed that they were following the correct red truck, nor was it confirmed that Eagle was in or driving the truck.  Soon after stopping within the reservation, a firefight ensued, and both agents were killed by gunshot wounds at close range.  Peltier was found with Bob Robideau and Dino Butler soon after the shooting in nearby Tent City.  Robideau and Butler’s fingerprints were found at the scene and they were subsequently arrested.  Robideau and Butler were found not guilty, but Leonard Peltier was arrested for murdering the two agents, and he still claims that he never shot either agent.

At the trial, Myrtle Poor Bear was brought forth to testify.  She claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend and stated that he was capable of doing such a violent act, yet Peltier said that he had never met her before.  According to the defense team, Myrtle Poor Bear was unstable and unbalanced, and believed anything anyone told her. This implied that someone told her that she was in a relationship with Peltier, thus causing her to immediately believe the story.  Despite her inconsistent testimony, her story was used as a key piece of evidence against Peltier.

Another unfair piece of evidence used against Peltier was witness Mike Anderson.  Anderson is said to have been on the reservation the day of the shooting.  He claimed that he was on the roof of a house and saw Peltier shoot at the agents, yet people throughout the reservation said that Anderson was never on the roof at the time of the shooting – he was at one of the tents helping fellow tribal members.  Even with the inconsistency of Anderson’s story, his account was also very influential in determining Peltier’s fate.

Both of these two witness accounts, among many other factors, influenced Peltier’s sentence. However, in 2009, new evidence was presented in hopes of getting Leonard released.  A shell casing found stuck in the agent’s car was determined to be a mismatch for Peltier’s rifle.  Also, a few witnesses claimed that the shots were heard coming from the red pickup truck, which was parked at the top of the hill looming over where the agent’s car was parked.  Peltier owned a red van, not a red pickup truck.  Even with newly presented evidence, Peltier was denied parole, thus causing Amnesty International to raise concerns over the fairness of the case.

Because 2016 marks the 40th year of Peltier’s imprisonment, the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee mounted another campaign to get Peltier released from prison.  The committee wants President Obama to grant Peltier clemency.  However, the committee’s many attempts and petitions have not yet been successful.  The committee cites Peltier’s poor health as a major driving factor of his needed-release.  Peltier’s long-time spiritual adviser, Lenny Foster, spoke to a crowd of Peltier’s supporters, saying, “Leonard belongs to us.  We don’t want our brother to die in prison.”  Foster is growing increasingly concerned about Peltier’s health ever since he had been diagnosed with an aortic abdominal aneurysm.  An aortic abdominal aneurysm is when the major blood vessel is enlarged, potentially causing the aneurysm to rupture.  If it does rupture, Peltier could “bleed out before receiving the adequate medical treatment the Bureau of Prisons is required by law to provide,” says journalist Frances Madeson.  These health concerns, along with allegations that the trial and conviction were unfair, are the primary driving forces behind the demand for Peltier’s release.

Due to the various justice concerns, Amnesty International hopes that Peltier will be released on humanitarian grounds.  Peltier will not be eligible for parole for another eight years, and his release date is set for the year 2035.  Peltier’s supporters claim the United States government used Peltier as a scapegoat because of the lack of facts presented in the case, and that he has been wrongfully accused of murdering the two FBI agents.  The evidence behind the trial and conviction has always been considered questionable at best, which seems to demand the Peltier case be awarded another look.

Since this is the 40th year of his incarceration, Peltier has spent over half of his life in captivity, and, using Peltier’s own words from his letter after his parole was denied: “Given the complexion of the three recent federal parolees, it might seem that my greatest crime was being Indian. But the truth is that my gravest offense is my innocence. […] My experience should raise serious questions about the FBI’s supposed jurisdiction in Indian Country.”