Leonard Peltier is a seventy-two-year-old Indian activist who has spent the past forty-plus years in prison - with six of those years being in solitary confinement. He is diabetic, has suffered a stroke, and has been diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. He is a frail and elderly individual who longs to spend his remaining time on earth as a free man getting to know his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Peltier, a member of AIM, the American Indian Movement, was involved in the unrest on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975 when he was accused of killing two FBI agents. Peltier's stated role in the difficulties was the protection of members of the Oglala Lakota tribe from their corrupt tribal government which was working in tandem with the FBI and federal authorities to keep the Indian rights movement under control.
(To gain a "feel" of the situation as it was then, check out the fictional 1992 Val Kilmer movie, Thunderheart.)
The two FBI agents, Robert Coler and Jack Williams, were shot execution style, with bullets fired straight into their heads. Peltier maintained that he was one of several Indians firing in the direction of the agents, but that he did not execute them. In a letter appealing to President Obama for clemency, Peltier's attorneys noted that reviewing courts have found that the government "crossed ethical lines, fabricated evidence, withheld exculpatory evidence, and otherwise did everything necessary to secure Leonard Peltier's conviction."
Without trivializing the awfulness of the murder of two young FBI agents, the government's case against Leonard Peltier was weak, and to a degree, contrived.
But Leonard Peltier is not challenging his conviction. He simply wants to be released and free to live his final few years with family.
There is a substantial list of humanitarian organizations and prominent individuals who are openly advocating for Mr. Peltier's release from prison. His request for clemency is supported by the National Congress for American Indians, the National Council of Churches, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Amnesty International, several members of Congress, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Harry Belafonte, and Robert Redford. Before their deaths, Nelson Mandela, Coretta Scott King, and Pete Seeger also spoke out in favor of his release from prison.
A strong attempt was put forward to have President Clinton grant clemency to Leonard Peltier back in 2000 as Clinton was preparing to leave office. The FBI marshaled its forces and had more than a hundred agents protesting outside of the White House to deter the President from granting the clemency. Clinton caved to the pressure.
Now, with President Obama already granting record numbers of pardons and commutations, the FBI will undoubtedly try to flex its outrage muscle and keep their savage Indian behind bars. But perhaps Obama will look beyond continuing the vengeance and opt instead to show a bit of compassion - and perhaps begin to make some very long overdue headcway in repairing relations with our country's Native American population.
Show some mercy, Mr. President. Releasing Leonard Peltier from prison is the right thing to do - and you are the right person to do it.