American Indian Movement’s fatal clash with FBI agents led to Peltier’s conviction despite ‘serious concerns’ over fairness
Amnesty International has called for the US authorities to release Leonard Peltier, a Native American man who has been imprisoned for 38 years despite serious concerns about the fairness of proceedings leading to his conviction.
Peltier, 69, an Anishinabe-Lakota and a leading member of the American Indian Movement, was arrested exactly 38 years ago today in connection with the murders of two FBI agents - Jack Coler and Ronald Williams - during a confrontation involving the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.
While he admits to having been present during the incident, Peltier has always denied killing the agents as alleged by the prosecution at his trial. In 1977 he was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murders.
All legal appeals against Peltier’s conviction have been exhausted. His most recent petition for release on parole was denied in 2009 and he will not be eligible for parole again until 2024 when he’ll be 79. Meanwhile, Peltier is already in poor health and his supporters in the USA have organised an international day of solidarity for today to mark the anniversary of his 6 February 1976 arrest.
Amnesty does not have a position on Peltier’s guilt or innocence. The organisation recognises the seriousness of the crime for which Peltier was convicted and has the deepest sympathy for the relatives of Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. However, having studied the case extensively over many years, Amnesty remains seriously concerned about the lack of fairness of proceedings leading to his conviction and believes that political factors at the time - including in the context of tense relations between the American Indian Movement and the FBI - may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted.
Amnesty’s concerns regarding the legal case include:
- Questions about evidence linking Peltier to the shootings
- Coercion of an alleged eyewitness who said she had seen Peltier shoot the two agents but who later retracted her testimony and who was not allowed to be called as a defence witness at Peltier’s trial
- The withholding of evidence by the prosecution at the trial - including potentially key ballistics evidence - that might have assisted Peltier’s defence
Furthermore, over the years, disquiet about the case has been expressed by those involved in the legal proceedings, including the US Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit, which, though ruling against a motion for a new trial, said in 1986: “We recognise that there is some evidence in this record of improper conduct on the part of some FBI agents, but we are reluctant to impute even further improprieties on them.”
Meanwhile, Gerald Heaney, the judge who presided over Peltier’s appeal hearing in 1986, subsequently expressed his concerns about the case in a letter to Senator Daniel Inouye, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in 1991, expressing his belief that: “the FBI used improper tactics in securing Peltier’s extradition from Canada [where Peltier fled following the shootings] and in otherwise investigating and trying the Peltier case.” He added: “Although our Court decided that these actions were not grounds for reversal, they are, in my view, factors that merit consideration in any petition for leniency filed.”
Given these ongoing unresolved concerns, and with all legal appeals against his conviction having been exhausted, Amnesty is urging the US authorities to release Peltier from prison in the interests of justice and on humanitarian grounds.
The American Indian Movement is an activist group involved in promoting the rights of “traditionalist” Native Americans. In the two years prior to the confrontation in which the two FBI agents were killed, more than 60 Native Americans on the Pine Ridge reservation had been killed, allegedly by paramilitary squads connected to the tribal government, without anyone being brought to justice for the crimes. American Indian Movement members who had come to the reservation to assist “traditionalists” opposing the tribal government were also allegedly threatened. Relations between the American Indian Movement and the FBI were also tense, with accusations that the authorities had not done enough to protect those at risk on the reservation.
The confrontation in which the two FBI agents were killed took place after the agents entered the reservation with an arrest warrant and started following a red pick-up truck. A fire-fight ensued. In a subsequent trial, evidence was presented to show that the agents received multiple shots and were quickly disabled before being shot dead at point-blank range. Two other American Indian Movement leaders were initially charged with the murders and were tried separately; no evidence was presented to link them to the point-blank shootings. The jury acquitted them after hearing evidence about the atmosphere of violence and intimidation on the reservation and concluded that they might have been acting in self-defence when they were involved in the exchange of gunfire.
Following their acquittal, the FBI renewed its efforts to pursue Leonard Peltier, securing his extradition from Canada in 1976 where he had fled following the shootings. At his trial, the prosecution alleged that the rifle which killed the agents belonged to Peltier. During post-trial investigations, the defence team discovered a telex message suggesting that the rifle in question contained a different firing pin from the one used to kill the agents. This was raised on appeal and at an evidentiary hearing at which the significance of the telex was contested by the government. The government also argued that sufficient evidence had been presented to the jury at the trial to show that Peltier had “aided and abetted” the killings even if he had not been the actual killer.
However, Amnesty believes that the outcome may well have been different had Peltier been properly able to challenge the ballistics evidence linking him to the fatal shots.