Leonard Peltier Is Getting What May Be His Last Chance At Freedom

WASHINGTON ― After nearly 50 years in prison, Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier is about to get what may be his last chance at freedom.

Peltier, 79, is up for a parole hearing on Monday.

His last parole hearing was in 2009. Given his poor health and the many years he’d likely have to wait for his next hearing, it is unlikely he would survive to make another one.

The U.S. government put Peltier in prison in 1977 after he was convicted for killing two FBI agents in a 1975 shoot-out on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But his trial was riddled with misconduct, and his prolonged imprisonment has drawn sharp condemnation from prominent human rights leaders, including Pope Francis, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. Dozens of U.S. senators and members of Congress have urged his release. So have dozens of Indigenous legislators.

Amnesty International, an organization typically focused on human rights violations abroad, has an entire campaign centered on Peltier’s case.

“Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned for nearly 50 years, and now suffers from severe health issues,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, told HuffPost in a statement. “It’s time for him to go home and live out his remaining days with his family and his community.”

Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier, shown here in prison in February 1986, has been in prison for nearly 50 years without any evidence he committed a crime.
Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier, shown here in prison in February 1986, has been in prison for nearly 50 years without any evidence he committed a crime. Cliff Shiappa/Associated Press

There was never evidence that Peltier committed this crime. The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office never did figure out who killed those agents.

But Peltier, who was one of dozens of people present at the shoot-out, was the only person left for them to go after. He had been separated from his co-defendants, all of whom had already been acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Prosecutors in his trial hid key evidence. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying. On the second day of the trial, a juror admitted she was biased against Native Americans but was kept on.

Peltier has maintained his innocence the entire time he’s been in prison. He had a chance to be released in 2009 when he was up for parole, but it would have required him to say that he murdered the two FBI agents. He wouldn’t do it. His parole was denied.

On Monday, a hearing officer with the U.S. Parole Commission will conduct Peltier’s hearing in a conference room at the maximum security prison in Sumterville, Florida, where he is incarcerated.The hearing is expected to last all day and is not open to the public.

Peltier is limited to two witnesses speaking on his behalf and will also speak for himself, according to his lawyer. One witness is a doctor who has examined Peltier and will testify about his serious health issues, which include diabetes and an aortic aneurysm. The other is a Native American ally to Peltier who is a prominent voice in Indian Country. Beyond Peltier’s witnesses, family members of the two FBI agents who were killed will also be there.

The hearing officer has 21 days to make a decision on granting parole. If it is granted, Peltier will go through a short process before being released. If it is denied, his attorney can file an appeal with a U.S. district court.

Peltier’s team will make the case that he be allowed to live out his final years in home confinement. He currently spends most days confined to a cell with inches of space to move within because the prison is regularly in a state of lockdown. He needs a walker to get around. He is blind in one eye from a stroke.

“I implore the Parole Commission to show justice and mercy by granting Mr. Peltier parole on humanitarian grounds,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a longtime supporter of Peltier’s release, told HuffPost in a statement.

A rally outside the White House on Sept. 12, 2023, shows support for imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier.
A rally outside the White House on Sept. 12, 2023, shows support for imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Stephanie Scarbrough/Associated Press

Remarkably, some of the same U.S. government officials who helped put Peltier in prison in the first place have since come forward and admitted how flawed his trial was, and have urged clemency for him. They include former U.S. Attorney James Reynolds and the late U.S. appeals court judge Gerald Heaney.

And in 2022, legal experts with the United Nations Human Rights Council issued an unusual and damning legal opinion that Peltier’s prolonged imprisonment is “arbitrary” and only because he is Native American. They concluded he should be released immediately.

“He has now spent nearly five decades locked away from his community, family, and loved ones enduring a punishment that he and hundreds of thousands of others, including the U.S. attorney who prosecuted him, know he was never due,” Grijalva said. “An injustice of that magnitude can never fully be made whole, but it is not too late to grant him the remaining years of a life that the federal government wrongfully stole from him so many years ago.”

So why is Peltier still in prison?

The FBI doesn’t want him released. Ever.

“The FBI remains resolute in our opposition to Leonard Peltier’s latest application for parole,” FBI director Christopher Wray told HuffPost in a statement.

Wray provided a lengthy statement laying out the bureau’s reasons:

Peltier was convicted of the brutal murder of FBI Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. We must never forget or put aside that Peltier intentionally murdered these two young men and has never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions.

Over the past 45 years, no fewer than 22 federal judges have evaluated the evidence and considered Peltier’s legal arguments, with each reaching the same conclusion: Peltier’s claims are meritless, and his convictions and sentence must stand. In addition, Peltier’s crimes include a post-conviction escape from federal custody, during which he and his crew fired shots at prison employees.

Granting parole for Peltier would only serve to diminish the brutality of his crime and further the suffering of the surviving families of agents Coler and Williams, as well as the larger FBI family.

But even by the U.S. government’s own admission, Peltier is not in prison for “intentionally” killing anyone ― or even for killing anyone. Government officials dropped that argument decades ago, when their case fell apart, and charged him with aiding and abetting whoever did kill those agents. The claim that Peltier has “never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions” makes sense given he’s maintained his innocence the entire time he’s been in prison, even when it’s almost certainly resulted in him being denied parole.

The FBI has not acknowledged the misconduct at Peltier’s trial, or the pleas for his release by the former U.S. government officials who played a direct role in putting him in prison.

The FBI has also not addressed the key context of that 1975 shoot-out: the FBI was intentionally fueling tensions on that reservation as part of a covert campaign to suppress the activities of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, a grassroots group of activists focused on drawing attention to treaty rights violations, discrimination and police brutality targeting Native Americans. Peltier was a prominent AIM member and an FBI target.

In a bombshell interview last year, retired FBI special agent Coleen Rowley said the bureau’s steadfast opposition to Peltier’s release is rooted in vindictiveness and misplaced loyalties. Rowley, who worked for years with prosecutors and agents directly involved in Peltier’s case, described how new FBI agents are “indoctrinated” with the bureau’s version of events surrounding the 1975 shoot-out. She has urged Peltier’s immediate release.

By all appearances, the FBI simply wants Peltier to die in prison, if not for any other reason than to avoid having to admit the U.S. government lied to put him in prison in the first place.

As Peltier’s attorney Kevin Sharp previously told HuffPost, “In order to get clemency, you have to get the FBI on board. They have an inherent conflict. You have to get the U.S. attorney’s office on board. They lied to get him in prison. They have an inherent conflict. They’re not going to say, ‘Oops, sorry.’”

“It’s this holdover with the FBI,” added Sharp, who is a former federal judge who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

It’s this holdover with the FBI.Kevin Sharp, Leonard Peltier's attorney

If Peltier’s parole is denied again on Monday, there’s really only one other way he’s got a chance at living out his final years at home in North Dakota with his family and tribe: if President Joe Biden grants him clemency. The president could do this unilaterally at any point. So far, he has chosen not to.

As a political matter, the issue of Peltier’s release isn’t going away.

Democrats in Congress have publicly appealed to Biden at least four times to grant clemency to Peltier. The National Congress of American Indians, the largest and most powerful Indigenous rights group in the country, has said Peltier’s freedom is a priority for the organization and its membership heading into the November elections.

In 2022, the Democratic National Committee unanimously passed a resolution calling on Biden to grant clemency to Peltier. 

A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

In a rare interview in 2022, Peltier told HuffPost what he would say to Biden if he had five minutes alone with him: “I’m not guilty of this shooting. I’m not guilty. I would like to go home to spend what years I have left with my great-grandkids and my people.”