Barack Obama has been busy commuting sentences, mostly for nonviolent drug offenders, with more than 1,100 prisoners receiving clemency during his presidency. That’s still a pretty small number given that during the 1980s and 1990s “hundreds of thousands of people were handed decades-long or even life sentences behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses,” according to a recent story in The Guardian.
But, as befitting his entire presidency, Obama, even with just a week remaining in office, is being highly cautious about anything too controversial and seems unwilling to consider one case that calls out for action: Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who has been imprisoned for more than 40 years. As I’ll discuss below, even the former U.S. Attorney whose office prosecuted Peltier has asked Obama to grant him clemency.
Peltier was convicted in 1975 for the murder of two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota during a confrontation between the Bureau and the American Indian Movement. Here’s an excerpt from a letter to Obama from Martin Garbus, the legendary lawyer representing Peltier, seeking clemency:
Mr. Peltier’s case is widely viewed throughout Indian Country and beyond as emblematic of the worldview and prejudices of the 1960s and 1970s against Native Americans. Tensions were high between Native communities and law enforcement agencies, and the unfortunate apathy of law enforcement (and others) for the protection of the rights of Native Americans was well documented at the time by the United States Civil Rights Commission…
Mr. Peltier’s conviction must accordingly be evaluated in the context of the politically charged, violent and polarizing environment of the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975, where the incident took place. A group that called itself the “GOONS” (the Guardians Of the Oglala Lakota Nation) — funded in part by a federal grant for a “tribal ranger” squad – were operating under the supervision of the then corrupt tribal government, had killed more than 50 members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, and had assaulted hundreds others. During this time period, Pine Ridge Reservation was the murder capital of the nation.
Mr. Peltier and others were summoned to the Reservation to help protect traditional tribal members who opposed the corrupt and violent tribal government. On June 26, 1975, two young Special Agents were dispatched alone–without backup–onto private property on the Reservation to make an arrest. As the jury that acquitted Mr. Peltier’s codefendants necessarily found, the ensuing shootout was a direct result of the then-rampant violence against traditional Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Peltier maintains his innocence and for years it’s been evident that his trial was a fraud. This excellent Daily News story details how James Reynolds, the former U.S. Attorney, wrote the White House and the Department of Justice last month to support a compassionate release. “I think it’s time,” Reynolds was quoted as saying. “Forty years is enough.”
What’s most astonishing, though, is that Reynolds said he was not convinced of Peltier’s guilt. “The hardest thing is to try and go back and reconstruct history,” he told the News. “He may not have [been guilty]. When you stand at the bottom and you look at the naked underbelly of our system, it has got flaws. It’s still the best one we’ve got, but at certain points there has to be a call for clemency and that’s where we are.”
Peltier has been in prison for 41 years, six in solitary confinement, and has “a host of medical issues, including suffering from a stroke, diabetes, undergoing multiple jaw surgeries and, now, an abdominal aortic aneurysm,” his daughter wrote last year.
Peltier’s supporters had believed that Bill Clinton would grant him clemency during his last days in office in 2001, but he of course was busy pardoning Marc Rich, the notorious sanctions buster whose ex-wife made major donations to the Democratic Party and who had a slew of well-connected supporters pushing for his release.
Let’s hope Obama has more courage and character, because with Trump about to take office this is Peltier’s last shot. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t bet on Obama but I hope to be proven wrong.