Birthday: September 12, 1944
Affiliation: American Indian Movemet
Captured: Feb. 6, 1976- 2 life sentences
IN PRISON 47+ YEARS
In a rare interview from his maximum security prison in Florida, Peltier recently told the Huffington Post that his message to the president would be simple.
“I’m not guilty of this shooting. I’m not guilty,” he said. “I would like to go home to spend what years I have left with my great-grandkids and my people.”
Leonard Peltier is a Native American civil rights activist and leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an historic political movement founded to promote Indigenous sovereignty and combat the oppression of Native American communities across the United States.
Throughout the 70s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sought to disrupt AIM’s activism through surveillance, infiltration, and severe crackdowns on demonstrations—part of a wider government effort that used illegal tactics to silence dissidence in the United States.
In 1976, Leonard Peltier and other members of AIM were asked by residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to provide support and protection to Pine Ridge residents following several years of severe violence on the reservation, including a string of over 60 murders of that the FBI did not adequately investigate. During the AIM members’ visit to Pine Ridge, FBI agents trespassed onto the reservation.
The situation devolved into a shootout during which two FBI Agents—Jack Coler and Ronald Williams—and a Native American man named Joe Stuntz were killed.
Mr. Peltier and his co-defendants, AIM members Robert Robideau and Dean Butler, were tried separately. The conditions and outcomes of the two trials differed drastically. Tried first, Robideau and Butler were acquitted by a jury on grounds of self-defense. Crucially, their lawyers had been able to inform the jury of the violent conditions on the reservation leading up to the shootout and the government’s misconduct during the investigation of the agents’ deaths. At Mr. Peltier’s trial, however, Judge Paul Benson prevented the jury from considering this key evidence, even though the government’s misconduct—which included several instances of witness intimidation and the suppression of exculpatory evidence—had been even more severe in Mr. Peltier’s case. After this deeply flawed trial, Leonard Peltier was convicted of murder and given two consecutive life sentences.
Mr. Peltier remains in prison even though his conviction has been widely discredited, including by U.S. Attorney James Reynolds, the very federal prosecutor whose office handled the prosecution of Mr. Peltier’s case. In a letter to President Biden, Mr. Reynolds acknowledges that Mr. Peltier was convicted “on the basis of minimal evidence” and describes his prolonged incarceration as “a testament to a time and system of justice that no longer has a place in our society.”
Mr. Peltier is now 78 years old, and after almost half of a century of incarceration, he suffers from several serious health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, partial blindness from a stroke, and heightened vulnerability to COVID-19. While incarcerated, Mr. Peltier has not received adequate medical attention for an abdominal aortic aneurysm that he suffered in 2016. He has also reported that he sometimes lacks access to basic needs, such as water. Despite his old age and poor health, Mr. Peltier is being held at United States Penitentiary Coleman I in Coleman, Florida—a maximum-security prison.
Despite his incarceration and failing health, Mr. Peltier has continued to serve his community as a leader, philanthropist, and artist. He has received numerous awards for his humanitarian work, and his paintings, which include vivid portraits of Sioux culture and Indigenous empowerment, were featured in New Observations’ 135th issue.
Today, Mr. Peltier’s best chance of gaining his freedom is through a grant of clemency from the Biden Administration. Since his imprisonment, human rights activists, public officials, U.S. judges, U.N. investigators, and dozens of tribal nations have all joined in calling on the government to release him. Mr. Peltier’s supporters include his Holiness Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the late Saint Mother Teresa, and the late Nelson Mandela, among others.
Support for Mr. Peltier’s clemency has gained extraordinary traction over the last year:
In an opinion released last summer, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called on the U.S. to release Mr. Peltier, attributing his prolonged incarceration to racist treatment and procedural violations during his parole process.
On November 29, 2022, seven U.S. senators – including Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawai’i) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) – wrote to the President to express their support for clemency.
On November 30, 2022, Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation, wrote a letter to President Biden urging clemency for Leonard Peltier.
On December 1, 2022, over 200 Indigenous artists in the entertainment and fashion industries joined in calling on the President to free Mr. Peltier.
And on December 3, 2022, Coleen Rowley, former FBI Special Agent and Legal Counsel to the FBI’s Minneapolis Division, wrote to the President in support of clemency. In her letter, Ms. Rowley attributes Mr. Peltier’s continued incarceration to active FBI opposition, stating that “retribution seems to have emerged as the primary if not sole reason for continuing what looks from the outside to have become an emotion-driven ‘FBI Family’ vendetta.”
This support represents significant progress, but we need your help in order to build on this momentum. You can support the campaign for clemency by taking the following actions:
Use your voice. Public pressure is the most powerful tool we have for putting clemency on the agenda of the President and elected officials.
Call the White House: (202)-456-1111
Email the White House: https://whitehouse.gov/contact/
Write a letter to the President expressing your support for clemency. Letters should be directed to:
The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20500
Write a letter to your members of Congress asking them to advocate for clemency.
Sign the petition calling for Leonard Peltier’s freedom!
After nearly 50 years, it is time for Mr. Peltier to return to his family and community. His wish is to return to Turtle Mountain, his childhood home, where he can get to know his grandchildren for the first time.
We appreciate your help with making this wish a reality and ensuring that Leonard Peltier receives justice.