A Pardon for Peltier
The Honorable Barack H. Obama II
President, United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500, USA
Dear President Obama:
You have many important domestic and international and issues before you at the moment that require your time and attention, and the fate of a 71-year-old man in failing health who has been in prison on U.S. soil for more than 40 years for a crime that, by all credible accounts, he did not commit is probably not among your highest priorities.
But I am writing you as a United States citizen living overseas — as one voice currently among many thousands of people around the world — to ask you to make this imprisoned man’s life your priority before your term as president ends in just a few more months. I ask you to grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier.
As a constitutional law scholar, you are probably familiar by now with Mr. Peltier’s name and his case. As a descendant of the Anishinabe and Lakota indigenous nations of North America, Mr. Peltier was active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1960s and 1970s in standing up for his people’s rights and holding the USA accountable for broken treaties made with First Nations peoples in the past.
Mr. Peltier was with other AIM activists at a spiritual camp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota — one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the United States — one day in June 1975, when two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) appeared suddenly on the scene without warning. A shootout ensued, and the two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, as well as a Native American member of AIM, Joseph Stuntz, were killed in the exchange of gunfire.
The FBI put the full weight of its investigative powers into hunting Peltier down and later getting him extradited from Canada, where he had fled following the shootout at Pine Ridge. He has been behind bars ever since in various U.S. prisons; currently he is imprisoned at maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary Coleman I in the state of Florida, serving the remainder of two life sentences.
But from the start, the FBI’s case against Mr. Peltier was flawed, to put it mildly.
Ballistics tests by the FBI have never conclusively linked Mr. Peltier to the killing of the two FBI agents. Tainted evidence and false testimony by alleged witnesses who were pressured by the FBI were used to get Mr. Peltier convicted. Even the U.S. government’s lead prosecutor, Lynn Crooks, admitted in a court session in the 1990s that nobody really knows who shot and killed those FBI agents that day on Pine Ridge back in 1975. A former judge who had presided over Mr. Peltier’s early court cases, the late Gerald Heaney, went on to insist that Mr. Peltier deserved clemency.
Mr. Peltier, for his part, has confirmed that he was there at the Pine Ridge shootout that day, but has always maintained his innocence in the unfortunate deaths of the two FBI agents.
Among the many persons around the globe who have called for Leonard Peltier’s release from prison in the USA over the years are two people you deeply respect, President Obama: the late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, also of South Africa. Mr. Mandela served 27 years for a crime he did not commit; by comparison, Mr. Peltier is now in his fourth decade of incarceration in the USA for a crime that he too did not commit. Archbishop Tutu has called for Peltier to be granted parole and released due to a “failed” U.S. justice system.
Mr. Peltier’s health is also failing him. He has not received the medical attention he desperately needs, and the prison authorities seem to be in no hurry to allow him to get well soon. His time is running out, and he and his family and supporters are appealing one last time for Mr. Peltier to be released before his health takes a turn for the worse and it becomes too late.
Mr. Peltier shared these sentiments in a letter he released earlier this year on June 26, which marked 41 years to the day since the shootout at Pine Ridge that later led to his imprisonment: “As the last remaining months of President Obama’s term pass by, my anxiety increases. I believe that this president is my last hope for freedom, and I will surely die here if I am not released by January 20, 2017.”
For First Nations peoples throughout the U.S., Mr. Peltier’s treatment at the hands of the authorities over these past four decades has represented one travesty of justice in a long line of injustices over the past few centuries. President Obama, you have some credibility among Native American communities in the U.S. — please use that credibility and do the right thing. Release Leonard Peltier to his family and his people right away. Let the healing begin to take place that needs to take place.
As you may recall, the last time that a U.S. president grappled with the decision to grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier was back in late 2000, as President Bill Clinton was leaving office. President Clinton eventually decided to leave Mr. Peltier behind in prison and, instead, granted a pardon to one of the president’s own wealthy supporters, a billionaire who was then hiding out overseas to escape prosecution for the U.S. federal crime of tax evasion. President Obama, please do not make the same mistake that your predecessor in the White House, Mr. Clinton, did: Release Mr. Peltier unconditionally with a full pardon. Forty years is long enough for anyone to have to wait for justice in the USA. You now have the political authority and the opportunity to make sure that justice is finally done in the case of Mr. Peltier, and by extension, to all of his people.
No doubt you would be roundly condemned by the FBI for daring to call for Mr. Peltier’s release — just as many of Mr. Peltier’s supporters, at home and abroad, have been criticized over the years for daring to stand up and demand that justice be done in the case of Mr. Peltier. But it is a call you must make, President Obama, and soon, before Mr. Peltier’s time truly does run out. In any case, you can rest assured that you would have the support of many, many more people around the world, should you decide that Mr. Peltier is to receive a presidential pardon. History would certainly be on your side for doing the right thing at the end of your presidency.
Let justice take its well-deserved course, and let the long-overdue closure begin with Leonard Peltier’s first steps outside of a prison cell, which he should never have been sent to in the first place. Let Mr. Peltier, now a respected elder, live out the remainder of his days in the care and comfort of his family and community, serving society in ways he sees fit.
Mr. President, I cannot urge you strongly enough to grant a pardon to Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier before you leave office. Please make his release from prison after 40 years a top priority in the months to come.
Brian Ohkubo Covert
For further reference:
• Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance (excerpts, 2000) by Leonard Peltier
• In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (excerpts, 1992 updated edition) by Peter Matthiessen
• Warrior — The Life of Leonard Peltier documentary film (1992)
• Incident at Oglala documentary film (1992)