Leonard Peltier denied parole

By Jennifer Bendery

The original article was posted on huffpost.com on July 2.

Leonard Peltier was denied parole on July 2, meaning there’s likely only one other way the ailing, 79-year-old Native American rights activist will ever be released after serving nearly 50 years in prison: if President Joe Biden intervenes and commutes his sentence.

Peltier has been in prison since 1977 when the U.S. government convicted him for killing two FBI agents in a 1975 shoot-out on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

But his trial was full of misconduct, including federal prosecutors hiding evidence that exonerated Peltier and the FBI threatening and coercing witnesses into lying. The government’s case fell apart after these revelations, so it abruptly revised its charges against Peltier to aiding and abetting whoever did kill those agents — on the grounds that he was one of dozens of people present when the shootout occurred.

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

“Today is a sad day for Indigenous Peoples and justice everywhere,” Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy group, said in a statement.

They denied parole to a survivor of genocidal Indian boarding schools, and as he struggles to survive his unjust incarceration, they insist on holding him for a crime for which they have no physical evidence against him.” said Tilsen “Clearly, the Parole Commission — which is supposed to be an independent body — was influenced by the FBI.”

The FBI continues to oppose Peltier’s release and is the main reason, if not the only reason, that he’s still in prison. But its stated reasons for opposing Peltier’s release are full of holes, outdated and remarkably easy to disprove.

The FBI also has not publicly addressed the key context of that 1975 shootout: that the FBI itself 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 movement for Indigenous rights. Peltier was an active AIM member and an FBI target.

Peltier has maintained his innocence the entire time he’s been in prison. It has almost certainly contributed to him being denied parole.

Parole denial a death sentence

Prior to Tuesday, the last time Peltier was denied parole was in 2009. He is unlikely to live long enough to try for parole again, given the yearslong process involved, his advanced age and his poor health. Peltier has diabetes and an aortic aneurysm.

Peltier, nearly 80, was denied parole again after serving nearly 50 years in prison. It’s likely on President Joe Biden now to decide if he can ever go home.

In his parole hearing last month, Peltier’s team made the case that he be allowed to live out his final years in home confinement, with his family and tribe in North Dakota. His supporters have set up a house for him there.

Currently, Peltier spends most days confined to a cell with inches of space to move within, as his maximum security prison in Florida is regularly in a state of lockdown. He requires a walker to get around. He is blind in one eye from a stroke.

Biden is likely Peltier’s last best hope for going home. The president has the authority to unilaterally release him at any time. Some of Peltier’s allies have suggested they plan to throw everything they’ve got at pressuring Biden to specifically commute his sentence ― an action that would grant Peltier his freedom without the implicit forgiveness associated with a pardon.

So far, Biden hasn’t said a thing about Peltier.

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

In a rare interview in 2022, the imprisoned Native American rights activist said he knew 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,” Peltier told HuffPost. “I would like to go home to spend what years I have left with my great-grandkids and my people.” (tinyurl.com/3u9uttsc)

Paul O’Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA, called Peltier’s prolonged imprisonment “a human rights travesty.”

“Not only are there ongoing, unresolved concerns about the fairness of his trial, he has spent nearly 50 years in prison, is approaching 80 years old, and suffers from several chronic health problems,” O’Brien said in a statement. “We are now calling on President Biden, once again, to grant Leonard Peltier clemency on humanitarian grounds and as a matter of mercy and justice.”

Biden can pardon Peltier

There is an argument to be made that Biden is uniquely positioned to be the president who finally lets Peltier go home.

Unlike virtually all of his predecessors, Biden has been a proud ally of Native communities and tribes since he stepped into the White House. He has overseen historic investments in Indian Country. He respects tribal sovereignty. He talks about the need for justice in Native communities, particularly when it comes to stopping violence against women. He’s put unprecedented numbers of Indigenous judges onto the federal bench and several Indigenous people into senior positions in his administration.

Biden made history when he appointed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary. She passionately urged for Peltier’s release in her former role as a member of Congress.

Beyond that, Biden’s own party has been pleading with him to show compassion for Peltier. The Democratic National Committee voted unanimously in 2022 to pass a resolution urging the president to release Peltier. Dozens of senators and members of Congress, including Biden’s former presidential rival Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Senate Indian Affairs Committee chairman Brian Schatz (D-Hawaiʻi), have called on the president at least four times to free Peltier.

“Mr. Peltier’s continued imprisonment defies the promises of justice, and the power to exercise mercy in this case lies solely within your discretion,” reads one of the senators’ letters to Biden.

“We commend the steps that your administration has taken to right past wrongs of our government’s treatment of Native Americans, particularly through Secretary Haaland’s leadership and her Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. Furthermore, your administration has demonstrated a laudable commitment to upholding the core American values of liberty and justice and rectifying inequities in the criminal justice system,” said the senators. 

They conclude: “Consistent with these actions, we urge you to grant clemency to Mr. Peltier by commuting the remainder of his sentence.” (tinyurl.com/msdsemak)

Pressure on Biden stepped up

Indigenous leaders and human rights advocates have been stepping up their calls on Biden to release Peltier, too. Last year, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest and most powerful Native American rights group in the country, told HuffPost that Peltier’s freedom is a 2024 election priority for the organization. (tinyurl.com/2d6uewb3)

“You’ve become complicit in this injustice for Indian Country,” Fawn Sharp, the president of NCAI at the time, said of Biden for remaining silent about Peltier’s release.

Suzan Harjo, a longtime Indigenous rights advocate and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, has been urging Peltier’s release for decades. In a call last month with reporters, she said people need to understand that Peltier has come to represent so much more than himself for Indigenous people.

“Leonard is in prison for all of us,” Harjo said, highlighting Peltier’s activism with AIM to draw attention to treaty rights violations, discrimination and police brutality targeting Native Americans. “He is an example of the AIM movement for all of us who could be in prison.”

There’s a reason why “people who are oppressed everywhere” can identify with Peltier’s fight for justice, she said. And if he is able to go home, he’ll see that the country has changed for the better for Native Americans ― in part because of the things he fought for. “

He doesn’t have to go out and defend us as he had to do before,” Harjo said.  “Everyone will be very joyous and say, ‘OK, let’s stand down now.’”

This article has been edited

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