Native American activist, dubiously convicted in murder of FBI agents, gets first parole hearing in 15 years

Leonard Peltier has spent the last 48 of his 75 years in prison following a controversial trial that found him guilty of murdering two FBI agents.

In 1975, the two agents arrived at a home on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in plain clothes and an unmarked car. They were attempting to arrest a man suspected of stealing cowboy boots. The arrest attempt escalated into a shootout, killing the two agents and spawning a fraught trial that saw Peltier imprisoned for two life sentences.

Tensions were high between Native Americans and law enforcement on Pine Ridge reservation after the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973.

While Peltier was present at the shootout, no reliable witnesses claim that he killed the agents. Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, was purported to have the only firearm on the reservation capable of firing the kind of bullet that killed the federal agents. This claim, amidst much false evidence, has been proven to be blatantly false.

But dozens of people had participated in the gunfight; at trial, two co-defendants were acquitted after they claimed self-defense. When Peltier was tried separately in 1977, no witnesses were presented who could identify him as the shooter, and unknown to his defense lawyers at the time, the federal government had withheld a ballistics report indicating the fatal bullets didn't come from his weapon, according to court documents filed by Peltier on appeal.

Levi Rickert, Native News Online

Peltier, now suffering from diabetes, partial blindness and impaired mobility in his old age, has consistently been denied parole. Even now, in his old age, the FBI maintains that he remain in prison.

"Given the overwhelming and unassailable evidence of his guilt, the brutality of his crimes, and his persistent refusal to accept responsibility, I urge you in the strongest terms possible to deny Peltier's application for parole. To afford him release after what he did and how he has conducted himself since would most certainly "depreciate the seriousness of his offense [and] promote disrespect for the law,"

FBI Director Christopher Wray

To some, especially those with certain political interests, mainting your innocence is proof of guilt.

Beyond his Native American supporters, many people and human rights organizations — including Amnesty International, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Congress of American Indians, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and others — have stated their beliefs that Peltier is a political prisoner who should be immediately released.

Levi Rickert, Native News Online

On June 10, 2024, Peltier had his first parole hearing in 15 years. The political prisoner's fate will be determined within the next few weeks.

An exhibition of his art and fundraiser in support of his medical and legal fees will be held at SOMArts in San Francisco on June 26.

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