• Print

Free Leonard Peltier

To the Editors:

On July 20, 2000, The New York Review published a letter by Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Rose Styron, and E.L. Doctorow supporting a parole application for Leonard Peltier, who had served twenty-three years behind bars for the murder of two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, at Oglala on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, on June 26, 1975. The parole application was denied.*

Mr. Peltier, age seventy-one, has now served thirty-nine hard years, including six in solitary confinement. We have filed a petition for clemency with President Barack Obama, only the fourth president who has visited an Indian reservation and the first to visit a federal prison, and who has spoken out against the use of solitary confinement.

Viewing the case, a picture emerges of intolerance, misunderstanding, prejudice, lack of accountability, and a disregard for the civil rights of a marginalized American Indian community.

Leonard Peltier is in very bad health and is a threat to no one. If President Obama does not free him, he will likely die in jail.

The clemency petition is not about Leonard’s guilt or innocence—it is about all of the issues that Leonard Peltier has come to represent during four decades in prison, including, among other things, the historic injustices against Native Americans; the distrust between Native American communities and federal law enforcement agencies; the poverty and polarized conditions on Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, which were exacerbated, in part, by an ineffective federal response; the ensuing violence that drove Pine Ridge to become the scene of many murders of Native Americans; and the circumstances that led up to and followed the June 26, 1975, shootout, in which two young FBI agents and one young American Indian lost their lives.

One of the more chilling documents annexed to the clemency petition is a report by William Muldrow, who reported his observations to his superiors at the US Civil Rights Commission. He observed warrantless searches, detentions without cause, a military response with hundreds of agents swarming the Oglala Lakota community in an aggressive manner, and federal representatives making false and misleading statements to the press. He concluded that the complaints of overreaching coming from the Oglala Lakota Nation were “sufficient[ly] credi[ble] to cast doubt on the propriety of the actions of the FBI, and raise questions about their impartiality and focus of their concern.”

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Judge Gerald Heaney of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, who presided on two appellate panels that considered Mr. Peltier’s appeals at different stages (and wrote one of the decisions), after commenting on the FBI’s illegal activities to secure the conviction, wrote to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 1991:

He has now served more than fourteen years in the federal penitentiary. At some point, a healing process must begin. We as a nation must treat Native Americans more fairly. To do so, we must recognize their unique culture and their great contributions to our nation. Favorable action by the President in the Leonard Peltier case would be an important step in this regard.

Mr. Peltier’s release would resound as a positive step toward reconciliation throughout Indian Country, and would demonstrate by executive action that under today’s worldview American Indians are valued members of our society. Professor James Anaya, former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, wrote the following to President Obama on October 28, 2015:

In my opinion, if Leonard Peltier dies in jail, then he will likely die a martyr and the relationships and progress that you and your Administration have worked so hard to forge likely will be dealt a significant set-back…. I respectfully submit that the time has come for the significant interests of law enforcement to yield to the significant interests of fundamental fairness and reconciliation and healing with America’s first peoples.

Among the other supporters of this clemency petition are globally respected scholars, activists, professional organizations including the National Congress of American Indians, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Amnesty International, representatives of the United Nations, and many other human rights leaders in the United States and throughout the world.

The deaths of the FBI agents were a tragedy, and nothing in Mr. Peltier’s petition is meant to minimize the gravity of the offense or the pain that their families have endured. Mr. Peltier has repeatedly expressed his remorse, regret, and sadness that the events of June 26, 1975, led to the deaths of young men engaged in their official duties. Whether President Obama grants clemency or fails to “reckon with the past,” his decision can set a precedent about law enforcement’s treatment of America’s first peoples. By writing to the president and supporting this petition, your readers have an opportunity to stand on the side of history that sends an unambiguous message to Indian Country and the world that our nation respects and values its first citizens and that we are ready to pursue a better future.

Martin Garbus and Rose Styron
New York City and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts

  1. *

    For a detailed account of the Peltier case, see Peter Matthiessen, “The Tragedy of Leonard Peltier vs. the US,” The New York Review, November 19, 2009.