The fight to free Leonard Peltier

Should Biden grant clemency to an activist convicted of the murder of two FBI agents in 1977?

Leonard Peltier.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

In 1977, Native American activist Leonard Peltier was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents who died in a shootout at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier, now 77, has always maintained his innocence, and this spring, he asked President Biden to review his case and grant him clemency. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), are also calling on Biden to free Peltier. Here's everything you need to know:

Who is Leonard Peltier?

Peltier is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe who was active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the 1970s. In June 1975, during a period of violence at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Peltier and other AIM members were providing protection to residents. On June 26, two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, entered the reservation to search for a man suspected of stealing a pair of cowboy boots. The FBI agents came under fire and a shootout ensued, during which Williams, Coler, and Pine Ridge resident Joe Killsright were killed.

Four AIM members, including Peltier, were accused of the murder; only Peltier was found guilty of murdering Williams and Coler, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison. The other AIM members were acquitted in separate trials by juries that found they acted in self-defense. Peltier has admitted that he did fire during the shootout, but said it was out of self-defense, and he has always denied killing Williams and Coler. Many Native American activists consider him to be a political prisoner.

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Why are there doubts about Peltier's guilt?

Hirono wrote in a letter sent to Biden last month that the prosecution "withheld critical exculpatory evidence — namely, a ballistics report that proved shell casings from the murder weapon did not come from a rifle tied to Mr. Peltier." This was discovered by Peltier's attorney in 1980, after a Freedom of Information Act request was submitted.

In October, 11 other Democratic members of Congress wrote to Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland about Peltier, saying that a "critical alleged eyewitness to the shootings" retracted her testimony after admitting the FBI "had threatened her." Despite these revelations, they said, "Mr. Peltier has yet to receive a fair trial that is free from constitutional violations."

In 2009, federal prosecutors referred to Peltier as an "unrepentant, cold-blooded murderer," and he was denied parole. He will not be eligible again until 2024.

Why is there now a renewed fight for Peltier's release?

Peltier, who is at a federal prison in Florida, had a severe bout with COVID-19 earlier this year. His family said he is suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and is partially blind due to a stroke. One of his supporters is Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose office said Peltier recently shared with them his "difficulties receiving adequate medical attention and gaining access to basic needs, like water."

Peltier would like a new trial or clemency, but he told NBC News he would not accept a pardon, as he is innocent of the crimes he was convicted of. His backers say because of his clean prison record, age, failing health, and the constitutional issues with his prosecution, Peltier should receive clemency and an expedited release from prison.

Which lawmakers are asking for his release?

In addition to Hirono and Grijalva, other lawmakers who are calling on Biden to commute the remainder of Peltier's sentence include Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). A spokesperson for Hirono told HuffPost that she has "long championed the rights of our country's Indigenous communities," and asking for his release from prison is an extension of that work.

Who are some of Peltier's other supporters?

Over the years, many global leaders and celebrities have rallied behind Peltier, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Robert Redford, Gloria Steinem, and Harry Belafonte. James Reynolds, a retired U.S. attorney who was involved with Peltier's prosecution, sent Biden a letter last July stating, "I write today from a position rare for a former prosecutor: to beseech you to commute the sentence of a man who I helped put behind bars. With time, and the benefit of hindsight, I have realized that the prosecution and continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was, and is, unjust. We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation."

What does the FBI have to say about Peltier and calls for his clemency?

In a statement made to NBC News in March, the FBI said it remains "resolute against the commutation of Leonard Peltier's sentence," adding that no one should "forget or put aside that Peltier intentionally and mercilessly murdered these two young men and has never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions."

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