By Gale Courey Toensing
Aug 16, 2009
LEWSIBURG, Pa. There's a digital clock on the official Leonard
Peltier Web site marking the time the American Indian Movement
activist has been in prison.
On a recent visit to www.leonardpeltier.net the clock read "12241
days, 12 hours, 17 minutes, and 43 seconds of ILLEGAL IMPRISONMENT,"
then "12241 days, 12 hours, 17 minutes, and 44 seconds of ILLEGAL
IMPRISONMENT," "12241 days, 12 hours, 17 minutes, and 45 seconds of
ILLEGAL IMPRISONMENT" and so on a constant countdown that will
either end within several days or continue for an unknown period of
time, perhaps years, possibly until Peltier's life ends.
The Federal Parole Board is expected to render a decision on whether
Peltier will be released from prison after serving 33 years on two
murder charges by Aug. 21.
Peltier was granted his second parole hearing since 1993 July 28, and
appeared before the board to plead his case. The board has 21 days to
decide whether to release Peltier or deny parole and keep him in
Peltier was convicted in 1977 and given two consecutive life
sentences for the murder of FBI Special Agents Jack R. Coler and
Ronald A. Williams, who were killed during a shootout on the Pine
Ridge Reservation in South Dakota June 26, 1975.
The 64-year-old man has maintained his innocence, but controversy
over whether he committed the murders, and over the fairness of his
Those convinced of his guilt say he shot the two agents in cold blood
and deserves to stay in prison for the rest of his life.
Peltier's supporters, which include a huge international component,
say he is America's most famous and longest serving political prisoner.
But Peltier's attorney, Eric Seitz, said the only issue pertinent is
the law and that Peltier is eligible for parole.
The events of June 26, 1975 took place against a backdrop of terror
that had developed on Pine Ridge. The reservation was under internal
siege at the hands of then Chairman Dick Wilson and his "GOON Squad"
the so-called Guardians of the Oglala Nation, who were supported by
and collaborated with the FBI and BIA police.
The conflict has been characterized as a battle between Wilson's
secular group and traditional elders and others who were working for
election reform on the reservation. More than 60 people from the
traditional group had been killed in the two years before the 1975
shootout. None of those killings were investigated by local, state or
federal law enforcement agencies.
By 1975 things were so bad that some of the tribe's elders called AIM
for help. A group of AIM activists, Peltier among them, responded and
set up a camp on the reservation. On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents in
unmarked cars came onto the reservation apparently to serve a warrant
to a boy who had stolen some boots. Soon after their arrival, shots
were heard and the shoot-out began.
During the battle, the FBI agents and an Indian man named Joe Stuntz
were shot to death. The activists fled, anticipating that the
reservation would be overrun by FBI and other law enforcement people,
which was exactly what happened. In the siege that followed, elders
were beaten, houses were burned, people were terrorized and a lot of
gun shots were fired.
Peltier escaped to Canada where he was later captured, extradited and
brought to trial. Four of the AIM activists were indicted on murder
charges, but only Peltier was convicted.
Over the years and through numerous appeals, dozens of allegations
and inconsistencies have come to light regarding the FBI and the
prosecution's handling of the case, including witnesses recanting
testimony against Peltier and accusing the FBI of coercing and
threatening them into testifying; the FBI tampering with evidence and
withholding crucial evidence from the jury, including the results of
a ballistics report saying the bullet casing from the crime scene did
not match Peltier's gun, and the prosecutor himself conceding during
an appellate hearing that, "We do not know who shot the agents."
There are those who believe Peltier did not shoot them, but that the
AIM members had the right to defend themselves under the circumstances.
"The AIM members didn't go there looking for a fight or seeking
confrontation. They were there to protect those who were there. When
our people need help our warriors are supposed to respond and help.
These warriors stood up and responded. We have the right to self
defense," said Wanbli, Dakota, national spokesman for the Leonard
Peltier Defense Committee.
Others, like News from Indian Country editor Paul DeMain, said, "It
simply took a delegation of people who were tired of all the
deceptions, lies and dangers to step forward and tell me the truth.
'Peltier was responsible for the close range execution of the
agents,' and that was the end of that. I have no reason to doubt the
group of people, and others I have since conversed with, that they
are telling the truth."
While the debate continues over Peltier's guilt or innocence, his
attorney said the parole board's decision must be based on the law.
He has served the mandatory amount of time and is eligible for
parole, Seitz said.
The criteria for parole include a prisoner's record in prison, the
likelihood of returning to prison if released, post-prison plans, and
whether parole would diminish the seriousness of the offense.
"The last one is really the only issue and some people think he
shouldn't be paroled because the offense was too serious, but that
basically means you could never be paroled, and that's not the law,"
Peltier's plan, if released, is to return home where his tribe has
arranged a place for him to live and a job teaching art. He would be
surrounded by people who can support his transition to life outside
of prison, Seitz said.
"Leonard is feeling very apprehensive. He's hopeful that he gets out.
His health (he's diabetic) is not very good, so he's concerned about
that and his ability to maintain himself in an environment where he
doesn't get timely or very aggressive medical care so we hope all
these things will be taken into account when they make their decision."