Who is Leonard Peltier? The Native American activist who faces his first parole hearing in 15 years

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Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist controversially convicted in 1977 of murdering two FBI agents, is slated to receive his first parole hearing in 15 years Monday.

Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, became involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s and was one of several demonstrators who traveled to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975 during the controversial tribal chairmanship of Richard Wilson.

Wilson’s critics in AIM denounced him as an authoritarian and a factotum for the federal government, and tensions on the reservation had already led to the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.

On June 26, FBI agents Ronald Arthur Williams and Jack Ross Coler drove onto the reservation following a truck carrying Peltier and two of his fellow protesters.

A confrontation erupted among the agents, the activists and the family on whose ranch the AIM members were camped. This was followed by a firefight involving more than 40 people, during which Williams and Coler were killed.

A third man, AIM activist Joe Stuntz, was killed by a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent sniper later that day. Dozens of people were present at the scene of the firefight, but the only people ever charged were Peltier and two other AIM demonstrators, both of whom were acquitted on the basis of self-defense in separate trials.

Peltier was extradited from Canada in 1977 and sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment.

His trial has remained controversial due to discrepancies in the prosecution. Specifically, advocates for his release have pointed to the prosecution’s eyewitness Myrtle Poor Bear, who testified that she was Peltier’s girlfriend at the time of the shooting and witnessed him kill both agents. Poor Bear later recanted her testimony, which she said was coerced by the FBI, and said she did not know Peltier.

A federal appeals court in 1978, while upholding the conviction, called the use of affidavits from Poor Bear to extradite Peltier “a clear abuse of the investigative process.”

Peltier has maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration, and his attorneys have emphasized both his age, 79, and numerous health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and a partial stroke that cost him his vision in one eye.

Advocates for his parole or release have included Pope Francis, Amnesty International, and the late Mother Teresa and Coretta Scott King, as well as current Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

The FBI, meanwhile, has vocally opposed parole or clemency for Peltier. In a statement before the parole board in 2009, Thomas J. Harrington, then-executive assistant director for the FBI’s criminal, cyber, response and services branch, accused Peltier of an “intentional and vicious attack” and said that lenience would “signal disregard and disrespect to the law enforcement community as a whole.”

Current FBI Director Chris Wray wrote in 2022 to oppose Peltier’s petition for commutation of his sentence, calling him a “remorseless killer.” 

Peltier was denied parole in 2009 after he refused to admit to the killings as a condition, and then-President Obama denied a petition for clemency two days before leaving office in 2017.

Despite the FBI’s consistent opposition to his parole, however, both Gerald Heaney, the judge who presided over Peltier’s trial and U.S. Attorney James Reynolds, whose office handled the prosecution, have eventually called for his release. 

Peltier’s age and health means Monday could be his last chance at parole, and unless President Biden makes the decision to offer him clemency or a commutation, his last chance at freedom.

In October, 33 members of Congress, led by House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), called on Biden to grant clemency.

“We applaud your commitment to criminal justice reform and your administration’s work to address inequities in the criminal justice system and rectify the past wrongs of our government’s treatment of Native Americans,” they wrote. “We urge you to take the next step by granting Mr. Peltier executive clemency or compassionate release.”

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