This was to be my January article for subter, but the site is now defunct so I am posting it here. A month ago, when I was putting this together, I posted the documentary Incident At Oglala. Still worth a look.
Leonard Peltier is a 63 year old Native activist, serving two life sentences for the murders of Special Agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams. Since his incarceration in 1977, Amnesty International, Nelson Mandela, and many others have come forward, naming Peltier a prisoner of conscience and calling for his release. Gitmo notwithstanding, it is unusual for a North American inmate to attract this kind of attention. So why does he?
Coler and Williams were shot to death on June 26, 1975 at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The two men were driving separate cars, following a red pickup they believed belonged to Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for stealing a pair of boots. Soon they reported that they were under fire. Their cars had come to a halt near the Jumping Bull Ranch, where a group of AIM members and supporters were camped. AIM, the American Indian Movement, is a native rights organization, which was founded in 1968 and in its earliest activities engaged in the sort of radical political actions associated with the 1960s, including the occupation of government offices. It led a seventy one day standoff against the US government at Wounded Knee, also at Pine Ridge, which resulted in two deaths. On that June afternoon in ’75, AIM members say they heard shots, took up arms and began to fire on the two agents.
At the time, the Reservation had, by some reports, the highest per capita murder rate in the US. It certainly had the highest in South Dakota. Much of the violence was framed by the conflict between the activists and the band’s leadership, headed by Dick Wilson, and supported by the Federal government. The leadership called their men the Guardians Of the Oglala Nation, G.O.O.N. Violent confrontations between AIM and GOON were common and fear dominated the community. If someone’s approach was threatening, a strong reaction was to be expected.
Later in the afternoon a large number of police officers swept the ranch and recovered the bodies. All AIM members escaped. Warrants were issued for Robert Robideau, Darelle ‘Dino’ Butler, and Leonard Peltier. Robideau and Butler were arrested three months later, but Peltier escaped to Canada. In hindsight it was the worst thing that could have happened to him. If he had been captured with Robideau and Butler, he would have been put on trial with them in Cedar Rapids. There the police relied on the testimonies of coerced witnesses and a jailhouse informant (who was discredited by his landlady) to put them on the scene, but could not prove they had fired the fatal shots. To the surprise of many, the jury accepted that, given the violent environment in which the shooting took place, Robideau and Butler believed they were threatened and acted in self-defence. They were acquitted.
The FBI then took measures to insure that this outcome would not be repeated at Leonard Peltier’s trial. They produced an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, who claimed to be Peltier’s girlfriend and to have been present when Peltier killed the two agents. On the basis of the affidavit, Canada sent Peltier back to the US to stand trial. It would later be discovered that this was not her first affidavit. In her original statement she denied being present when the shooting took place. Later she claimed that the police had threatened and intimidated her into making a false statement and that she had never even met Peltier. Either way, her testimony’s usefulness ended once Peltier was back for trial and she was dismissed as mentally incompetent and unfit as a witness.
Once the second trial began, things took a very different track. The trial was moved to a court in North Dakota that was more sympathetic to the prosecution and many aspects of the charge were changed. Instead of chasing Jimmy Eagle’s pickup, the agents were now said to have been following Peltier’s red and white van. No serious explanation has been put forward for the confusion. The prosecution argued that they agents meant a red and white van when they said a red pickup, and that a van could be described as a pickup. They now argued that Peltier shot the two men himself and produced eyewitnesses and ballistics evidence to support their claim. He was convicted and given two consecutive life sentences. There was no death penalty in the US at the time.
From the time of the trial, however, questions about the FBI’s methods have been raised, casting doubt on the fairness of the trial. Witnesses have come forward to say that, like Poor Bear, they were coerced into testifying against Peltier. Several thousand documents continue to be withheld from the defence, and questions of been raised over whether the evidence for the prosecution had been manipulated. The government, for example, claimed to have found a shell casing from an AR-15 in the open trunk of Coler’s car, and an AR-15 was found, destroyed in the explosion of a station wagon that Robideau and two others, neither of them Peltier, had been using. Throughout the trial it was claimed that the gun belonged to Peltier and that ballistic experts had tied it to the casing from the trunk, but documents obtained years later showed that experts had initially failed to match the casing to the gun and that there was no direct evidence linking the gun to the murder.
All this might have led to a new trial in a less prominent case, but Peltier’s trial has been held to a higher standard. While admitting that the FBI actions were improper, a new trial has been denied on the grounds that it could not be certain that such a trial would overturn the previous conviction. When Peltier went before the parole board, the board departed from its usual guidelines without explanation and denied him. In 2001, when it was rumoured that President Clinton was going to pardon him, hundreds of FBI agents demonstrated outside the White House and no clemency was granted.
From the beginning the behaviour of the FBI has cast a shadow of doubt over the fairness of Peltier’s imprisonment. At first they assumed a white, mid-Western jury would convict a couple of native radicals. When that proved wrong they did whatever they could to insure that someone would pay for the two deaths. Fairness, due process, basic honesty was all pushed aside to gain a conviction. A new trial would be the easiest, and best, way to clear the air and lay any doubts aside. It may not result in an acquittal. One sign of how narrowly focused the prosecution has been in its drive to punish a perceived murderer is that they have pushed the harshest line when other avenues could have been just as effective. The three men could have been charged with felony murder, which would not have required more than their participation in the shoot out and proving that they were not acting in self defence. The sentence would have been the same. Other events since the trial might also strengthen the prosecution’s hand. Two native activists and former supporters of Peltier, Paul DeMain and Ka-Mook Nichols, have come forward to say they believe Peltier is guilty. The circumstances of the shootout itself also raise questions. Frequently described as a firefight, the two Agents were fired upon first and managed to return only five shots between them from their service revolvers. Their two vehicles were later found to have 125 bullets holes shot into them. Both men were wounded when someone walked to the vehicles and shot them each in the head. If Peltier were simply granted clemency none of the many questions raised about the killings would be answered and the families and supporters of Coler and Williams would feel cheated and aggrieved. A new trial, a fair trial, could set it all to rest.