Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
Troubled by new revelations from elders and long-time residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation area where Leonard Peltier is said to have murdered two FBI agents, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee steadfastly continues to advance a case that he should be pardoned as a political prisoner.
According to its web site, "The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) seeks the immediate release of Leonard Peltier." The LPDC describes itself as "the center of communication between Leonard Peltier, his supporters, his family, the media, key government officials, and all other relevant individuals and groups. We also coordinate the national and international freedom campaigns through grass roots organizing, legal efforts, and political lobbying."
Peltier was convicted by a US District Court jury at Fargo, North Dakota, in April, 1977, for the June 26, 1975, murders of FBI Special Agents Ronald A. Williams, 27, and Jack R. Coler, 28. Two other men charged in the murders were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences to be served in a U.S. Penitentiary.
Supporters, both Indian and non-Indian, including a soon growing list of international human rights interests, organized to advocate for his release. The groups have made their case through grass roots campaigns, media releases, public rallies, appeals to international human rights organizations, letter writing campaigns and ubiquitous bumper stickers that urge "Free Leonard Peltier".
During the years since he was incarcerated, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee became the official point of contact between Peltier and his supporters outside prison walls. The committee reorganized in 1998, amid growing rumors that Peltier's role in the murders might have been even more significant than the government claimed at trial.
By that time, Peltier had become an international symbol of the plight of native nations of North America. He gained recognition as a political prisoner by South African President and Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela who also spent much of his life in prison for participating in violent resistance to his country's racially segregated government, Rigoberta Menchu a Guatemalan Nobel laureate acclaimed for his civil rights work, Amnesty International, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet, the European Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In short, the committee's main argument has been that a government that could not otherwise find a guilty party in the murders of Coler and Williams framed Peltier. But the case for Peltier's pardon has been two-fold and often contradictory. Arguments that he was framed hinge on various assertions, advanced by Peltier himself over the years, that he either had no knowledge of the murders as told to CNN in 1999, that another man dubbed Mr. X who appeared as a shaded figure in a Robert Redford documentary might be the real executioner, that he has knowledge which he will never reveal, or that he approached and searched the already-dead agents but did not kill them, as told to Peter Matthiessen for the book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
Doubts among Peltier's supporters in Indian communities and in the Native American press began to emerge with the investigation of another 1970's murder at Pine Ridge, that of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash. In 2003, two other 1970's AIM affiliates, John Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud, were indicted for her murder. Pictou-Aquash's death had been long memorialized among many advocates of native causes as a result of her being called a snitch (bad jacketed) by the FBI, or as a result of outright murder by the FBI or by their former Pine Ridge allies of the 1970s, the Guardians of the Oglala Nations (GOONS). Allegations surrounding her death were described in a popular song by folk singer Larry Long titled Anna Mae (re-released on Run For Freedom/Sweet Thunder, Flying Fish, 1997).
Former AIM members were first publicly implicated in the death of Pictou-Aquash in News From Indian Country, a Wisconsin-based newspaper published by Paul DeMain. An enrolled member of the Onieda tribe, DeMain is a former president of the Native American Press Association, served as a tribal affiars advisor to Wisconsin Governor Anthony Scully Earl (Democrat, 1983-1987) and managed Winona LaDuke's vice-presidential campaign on the 2000 Green Party ticket with Ralph Nader. DeMain has published editorials and news analysis that suggest she was killed because she knew the truth about what happened on the Jumping Bull Ranch June 26, 1975.
"Peltier was responsible for the close range execution of the agents..." DeMain wrote in a 2002 editorial. He said unsettled questions have placed at risk Pine Ridge residents who are variously accused of being the real killer, or of covering up the identity of the real killer thereby keeping Peltier in prison. DeMain said he has no reason to doubt the tribal elders.
With the disclosure from those who have long-time ties to Pine Ridge that Pictou-Aquash's knowledge of Peltier's role in the agents deaths might have been why she was killed, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee was thrown into disarray. The group re-organized in 1998 and continues to advocate for Peltier's release. DeMain acknowledges many of the allegations of government impropriety during the investigation and trial related to the murders of Williams and Coler. He wrote that, unable to make a convincing case with available evidence, the government appears to have resorted to underhanded tactics to convict the guilty party.
In a lawsuit filed by Peltier against DeMain in May 2003, a motion to enforce a settlement agreement was filed on May 24, 2004, with the Eighth U.S. District Court of Claims in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
"Statements were authored by DeMain that were false, defamatory, and malicious. They were then circulated by DeMain's newspaper with reckless disregard and with the knowledge that they were false," explained Barry Bachrach, Peltier's attorney. "DeMain stated, as a matter of fact, that Mr. Peltier was guilty of shooting the two FBI agents when the government itself has repeatedly admitted that it did not and cannot prove that Mr. Peltier shot the agents," Bachrach added. "DeMain also has implied Peltier's involvement in the Pine Ridge murder of fellow AIM member Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash in 1976."
According to Bachrach, DeMain had avoided giving a deposition for several months. Just before a deposition was finally to take place, on or about April 9, 2004, the two parties began settlement negotiations. With nothing further to negotiate, an agreement was reached on April 16th.
DeMain himself proposed that he issue a statement that affirms that:
1. "there has been widespread misconduct in the judicial system historically in cases involving Native Americans;
2. Leonard Peltier did not receive a fair trial;
3. he is entitled to one;
4. there have been numerous instances of questionable conduct by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in connection with the prosecution of Native Americans in this country;
5. the legal/social/political environment prevailing on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the 1970s could be legitimately compared to a 'war zone'; [and]
6. he [DeMain] neither believes nor feels that Mr. Peltier ordered , or was capable of ordering, the death of Ms. Pictou-Aquash, nor does he believe according to the evidence and testimony he now has, that Mr. Peltier had any involvement in her death."
In exchange, Peltier agreed to dismiss with prejudice his lawsuit against DeMain.
However, to date, DeMain has not issued his statement. With the exception of a call from DeMain's attorney indicating only a brief delay, Demain and his attorney have not answered Bachrach's telephone calls. Therefore, a motion to enforce performance of the settlement agreement was filed with the court.
Amnesty International, convinced that he did not receive a fair trial and will not receive fair consideration for parole or executive clemency, has called for Peltier's immediate and unconditional release. Leonard Peltier, noted for his continuing activism and humanitarian works, also was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
"Justice is possible for both Anna Mae and Leonard Peltier, but justice won't be done in either case by people falsely pointing fingers of blame. Leonard's only concern is for the truth, which is why monetary damages are not a part of this settlement. We believe that Anna Mae's murder was the direct result of FBI misconduct on Pine Ridge during the 1970s."
Peltier's legal team, supported by human rights organizations worldwide, continues to urge congressional hearings on FBI misconduct against AIM and Peltier. The attorneys recently submitted a formal request for hearings to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, DC.
- Leonard Peltier Defense Committee Web Site
- Peltier statement on the arrest of John Graham for the murder of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash (Graham was held in Canada in 2003 pending extradition proceedings; Amnesty International considers Graham a political prisoner)