Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) is an American activist and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who was convicted and sentenced in 1977 to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who were killed during a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
There has been debate over Peltier’s guilt and the fairness of his trial. Some supporters and organizations consider him to be a political prisoner, although his murder conviction has survived every possible appeal in various courts. Amnesty International has stated that "Although he has not been adopted as a prisoner of conscience, there is concern about the fairness of the proceedings leading to his conviction and it is believed that political factors may have influenced the way the case was prosecuted."** Numerous lawsuits have been filed on his behalf but none have succeeded.
Peltier is currently incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His projected release date is October 11, 2040
On July 28, 2009 Peltier was granted a full hearing before the US Parole Commission. On August 21, 2009 US Attorney Drew Wrigley announced that Peltier’s parole request had been denied. Peltier's next scheduled hearing will be in July 2024.
Leonard Peltier was born on September 12, 1944 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the son of Leo Peltier and Alvina Robideau. He is of Anishinabe-Lakota ancestry. He spent his early years living with his grandparents on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Peltier became involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM), and eventually in the conflicts that occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early 1970s.
Shootout at Jumping Bull Ranch
On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams were searching for a young Pine Ridge man named Jimmy Eagle, wanted for questioning in connection with the recent assault and robbery of two local ranch hands. Eagle had been involved in a physical altercation with a friend, during which he had stolen a pair of cowboy boots. Williams and Coler, driving two separate unmarked cars, in piggy-back fashion, observed and followed a red pick-up truck which matched the description of the one belonging to Eagle. At the time, Peltier was a fugitive, with a warrant issued in Milwaukee charging unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for the attempted murder of an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, of which he was later acquitted.
Williams radioed that he and Coler had come under high-powered rifle fire from the occupants of the vehicle and were unable to return fire to any effect with their .38 pistols and shotguns. FBI Special Agent Gary Adams was the first to respond to Williams' call for assistance, and he also came under intense gun fire from Jumping Bull Ranch.
The FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the local police spent much of the afternoon pinned down on U.S. Route 18, waiting for other law enforcement officers to launch a flanking attack. At 2:30 p.m., a BIA rifleman shot one of the shooters, Joe Stuntz, and killed him.
At 4:30 p.m., authorities recovered the bodies of Williams and Coler at their vehicle, and at 6 p.m. laid down a cloud of tear gas and stormed the Jumping Bull houses, finding Stuntz's corpse clad in Coler's green FBI field jacket.
The others, authorities later reported, had slipped away from the compound after Stuntz's death, to cross White Clay Creek and hid in a culvert beneath a dirt road. With police focused on the storming of Jumping Bull, the group made a break for the southern hills. In the following days, they split into smaller groups and scattered across the country, setting off a nationwide manhunt that lasted eight months.
The FBI reported Williams had received a defensive wound from a bullet which passed through his right hand into his head, killing him instantly. Coler, incapacitated from earlier bullet wounds, had been shot twice in the head execution style. In total 125 bullet holes were found in the agents' vehicles, many from a .223 (5.56 mm) rifle. The FBI investigation concluded the agents were executed at close range by the same .223 calibre rifle.
On September 5, 1975, Agent Williams' handgun, and shells from both agents' handguns, were found in a vehicle near a residence where Dino Butler was arrested.
On September 9, 1975, Peltier purchased a Plymouth station wagon in Denver, Colorado. The FBI sent out descriptions of it and a recreational vehicle (RV) in which Peltier and associates were believed to be travelling. An Oregon State Trooper stopped the vehicles based on the descriptions and ordered the driver of the RV to exit, but after a brief exchange of gunfire, Peltier escaped on foot. Authorities later identified the driver as Peltier. Agent Coler's handgun was found in a bag under the front seat of the RV, where authorities reported also finding Peltier's thumb print. On December 22, 1975 he became the 335th person named by the FBI to the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
On September 10, 1975, a station wagon blew up on the Kansas Turnpike near Wichita, and a burned-up AR-15 was recovered, along with Agent Coler's .38 Special revolver. The car was loaded with weapons and explosives which were apparently accidentally ignited when placed too close to a hole in the exhaust pipe. Present in the car among others were Robert Robideau, Norman Charles, and Michael Anderson, said to be associates of Peltier.
Peltier fled to Hinton, Alberta, Canada, where he hid out at a friend's cabin. Shortly after, Leonard Peltier was extradited from Canada on February 6, 1976, based on an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, a local Native American woman known to have serious mental problems. She claimed to have been Peltier’s girlfriend at the time and to have witnessed the murders. But according to Peltier and others at the scene, Myrtle Poor Bear didn’t know Peltier, nor was she present at the time of the shooting. She later confessed that she was pressured and threatened by FBI agents into giving those statements. Myrtle Poor Bear attempted to testify about the FBI intimidation at Leonard Peltier’s trial. But the judge barred her testimony on the grounds of mental incompetence.
Peltier fought extradition to the United States, a decision that backfired when Bob Robideau and Darelle "Dino" Butler, AIM members also present on the Jumping Bull compound at the time of the shootings, were found not guilty on the grounds of self-defence by a federal jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As Peltier fled to Canada and then fought extradition, he arrived too late to be tried with Robideau and Butler and was tried separately.
At his trial in United States District Court for the District of North Dakota in Fargo, North Dakota, a jury convicted Peltier of the murders of Coler and Williams and the judge sentenced him in April 1977 to two consecutive life sentences. After a series of appeals, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed Peltier's conviction in July 1993.
Questions about the fairness of Peltier's legal proceedings
There has been debate over Peltier’s guilt and the fairness of his trial due to allegations and inconsistencies regarding the FBI and prosecution's handling of this case:
• FBI radio intercepts indicated that the two FBI agents were chasing a red pickup truck. The day after the shootout, the FBI director stated the FBI's intent to find a red pickup truck. Red pickup trucks near the reservation were stopped for weeks in the attempt to locate it. However, Leonard did not drive a red pickup truck. At his trial, the FBI instead claimed they had been searching for the red and white van that Leonard was sometimes seen driving.
• Testimony from three witnesses placed Peltier, Robideau and Butler near the crime scene. Those three witnesses later recanted, alleging that the FBI, while extracting their testimony, had tied them to chairs, denied them their right to talk to their attorney, and otherwise coerced and threatened them.
• The jury, unlike the juries in similar prosecutions against AIM leaders at the time, were not allowed to hear about the other cases, where the FBI had been rebuked for tampering with both the evidence and witnesses.
• An FBI ballistics expert testimony during the trial asserted that a shell casing found near the dead agents' bodies matched the gun tied to Peltier. However it was specified that a forensics test of the firing pin, which would have more definitively matched the gun to the casing, was not performed because the gun was damaged in the fire. Rather, a less definitive test was done which indicated that the extractor marks on the casing and gun match.
Years later, after an FOIA request, the FBI ballistics expert’s records were examined. His report stated that he had performed a ballistics test of the firing pin and concluded that this bullet casing from the scene of the crime did not come from the gun tied to Peltier. That evidence was withheld from the jury during the trial.
• Though the FBI's investigation indicated that an AR-15 was used to kill the agents, several different AR-15s were in the area at the time of the shootout which could have caused the fatal injuries. Also, no other casings or evidence about them were offered by the prosecutor’s office, even though other bullets were fired at the crime scene.
• At the conclusion of Peltier’s trial, the prosecutor closed his argument saying, "We proved that he went down to the bodies and executed those two young men at point blank range." However, at the appellate hearing, the government attorney conceded, "We had a murder. We had numerous shooters. We do not know who specifically fired what killing shots…We do not know who shot the agents."
• The Pennsylvania Parole Commission, which presides over the prison Peltier was held at in Lewisburg, denied Peltier parole in 1993 based on their finding that he, "participated in the premeditated and cold blooded execution of those two officers." However, the Parole Commission has since stated that it, "recognizes that the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of the two FBI agents."
Post-trial debate and developments
Peltier's conviction sparked great controversy and has drawn criticism from a number of sources. Numerous appeals have been filed on his behalf; none of the resulting rulings have been made in his favour. Peltier is considered by the AIM to be a political prisoner and has received support from individuals and groups including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Amnesty International, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), the European Parliament, the Belgian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Peltier's supporters have given two different rationales for overturning the conviction. One argument asserts that Peltier did not commit the murders, and that he either had no knowledge of the murders (as he told CNN in 1999), or that he has knowledge implicating others which he will never reveal, or (as told in Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse) that he approached and searched the agents but did not execute them. The other rationale holds that the killings (no matter who committed them) occurred during a war-like atmosphere on the reservation in which FBI agents were terrorizing residents in the wake of the Pine Ridge standoff in 1973.
Near the end of President Bill Clinton's presidency in 2000, rumours began circulating that he was considering granting Peltier clemency. This led to a campaign against the possibility, culminating in a protest outside the White House by about five hundred FBI agents and their families, and a letter opposing clemency from then FBI director Louis Freeh. Clinton did not grant or deny Peltier clemency. In January 2009, President George W. Bush denied Peltier's clemency petition before leaving office.
In 2002, Peltier filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the FBI, Louis Freeh, and a long list of FBI agents who had participated in the campaign against his clemency petition, alleging that they "engaged in a systematic and officially sanctioned campaign of misinformation and disinformation." On March 22, 2004, the suit was dismissed.
In 2003 News from Indian Country publisher Paul DeMain wrote that an "unnamed delegation" with knowledge of the incident told him, "Peltier was responsible for the close range execution of the agents..." DeMain described the delegation as "grandfathers and grandmothers, AIM activists, Pipe Carriers and others who have carried a heavy unhealthy burden within them that has taken its toll."
In an editorial written in early 2003, DeMain stated that the motive for the execution-style murder of AIM activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash "allegedly was her knowledge that Leonard Peltier had shot the two agents, as he was convicted." DeMain did not accuse Peltier of participation in the murder. (In 2002 two other AIM members were indicted for the murder.) In response, Peltier launched a libel lawsuit on May 1, 2003, against DeMain. On May 25, 2004, Peltier withdrew the suit after he and DeMain reached a settlement, which involved DeMain issuing a statement where he wrote, “…I do not believe that Leonard Peltier received a fair trial in connection with the murders of which he was convicted. Certainly he is entitled to one. Nor do I believe, according to the evidence and testimony I now have, that Mr. Peltier had any involvement in the death of Anna Mae Aquash.’’ DeMain did not, however, retract his central allegations: That Peltier was in fact guilty of the murders, and that Aquash's murderer or murderers' motive was the fear that she might inform on Peltier.
In February 2004, Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud was tried for the murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, and found guilty. On June 26, 2007, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ordered the extradition of John Graham to the United States, to stand trial for his alleged role in the murder of Annie Mae Aquash.
In Looking Cloud's trial, the prosecution argued that AIM's suspicion of Aquash stemmed from her having heard Peltier admit to the murders. The prosecution called as a witness Darlene “Kamook” Nichols, former wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks. She testified that in late 1975 Peltier confessed to shooting the FBI agents to a group of AIM activists who were at that time on the run from law enforcement. The fugitives included Nichols, her sister Bernie, her husband Dennis Banks, and Aquash, among several others. Nichols alleged that Peltier said, “The mother fucker was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.” Bernie Nichols-Lafferty also gave the same account of Peltier’s statement. Other witnesses have testified that once Aquash came under suspicion of being an informant, Peltier interrogated her on the matter while holding a gun to her head. Peltier and David Hill later had Aquash participate in bomb-making so that her fingerprints would be on the bombs. The trio then planted these bombs at two power plants on the Pine Ridge reservation.
On February 10, 2004, Peltier issued a statement: “Kamook's testimony was like being stabbed in the heart while simultaneously being told your sister just died.” Peltier denounced Kamook Nichol's courtroom accusations as false, saying “I loved Kamook as my own family. I can't believe the $43,000 the FBI gave her was a determining factor for her to perjure herself on the witness stand. There must have been some extreme threat the FBI or their cronies put upon her.”
After the Looking Cloud trial, Darlene Nichols married Robert Ecoffey, Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement Services, who was instrumental in the investigation that led to Looking Cloud's conviction. During the trial Nichols acknowledged receiving $42,000 from the FBI in connection with her cooperation on the case, money she explained was compensation for her expenses in travelling to collect evidence by wearing a wire while visiting her ex-husband, Dennis Banks. Some of the money was for moving expenses so that she could move because of her fear of Banks.
Bruce Ellison—who has been Leonard Peltier's lawyer since the 1970s—invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to testify at the grand jury hearings leading up to the Looking Cloud trial in 2003, or in the trial itself. During the trial, the federal prosecutor named Ellison as a co-conspirator in the Aquash case. Witnesses state that Ellison participated in interrogating Annie Mae Aquash on December 11, 1975, shortly before her murder.
In a February 27, 2006, decision, U.S. District Judge William Skretny ruled that the FBI did not have to hand over five of 812 documents relating to Peltier and held at their Buffalo field office. He ruled that those particular documents were exempted on the grounds of “national security and FBI agent/informant protection.” In his opinion Judge Skretny wrote, “Plaintiff has not established the existence of bad faith or provided any evidence contradicting (the FBI's) claim that the release of these documents would endanger national security or would impair this country's relationship with a foreign government.” In response, Michael Kuzma, a Buffalo lawyer and a member of Peltier's defence team said, “We're appealing. It's incredible that it took him 254 days to render a decision.” Kuzma further stated, “The pages we were most intrigued about revolved around a teletype from Buffalo ... a three-page document that seems to indicate that a confidential source was being advised by the FBI not to engage in conduct that would compromise attorney-client privilege.”
Legal action has been taken by Peltier’s supporters in an attempt to secure more than 100,000 pages of documents from FBI field offices located throughout the U.S. claiming that these files should have been turned over at the time of his trial or following a Freedom of Information Act request filed soon after.
In 2007, Peltier became a figure in a political controversy when billionaire David Geffen, a Peltier supporter, detached his financial support for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and funded Barack Obama's campaign instead. This caused an immense furore in the Clinton camp, and Geffen admitted he switched his support because he became disillusioned by Bill Clinton's refusal to pardon Peltier in circumstances where he pardoned Marc Rich, a billionaire felon and criminal.
Whatever the controversy, Peltier's conviction still stands. Upon hearing the case on February 11, 1986, Federal Appeals Judge Gerald W. Heaney, concluded, "When all is said and done...a few simple but very important facts remain. The casing introduced into evidence had in fact been extracted from the Wichita AR-15." Following this, Peltier admitted that he fired at the agents, but denies that he fired the fatal shots that killed the agents.
According to sources, Peltier was severely beaten on January 13, 2009 following his transfer from USP Lewisburg, to the United States Penitentiary, Canaan by fellow inmates. He was sent back to Lewisburg after the assault.
** Source - Amnesty International