In 1977 Native American activist Leonard Peltier was put behind bars, where he has remained in federal custody ever since, for the murder of two FBI agents. But he hasn’t given up on being released: A petition for clemency was sent to the White House in late March, according to the New York Daily News.
Many have denounced Peltier’s incarceration as a farce, resulting from a trial filled with shaky evidence at best, and an abuse of power by a vengeful FBI at worst.
The Daily News, which obtained an exclusive interview with Peltier, reports that Peltier, like many Indian activists at that time, was already on the FBI’s radar long before his confrontation with the bureau because of his involvement with the American Indian Movement, or AIM.
Years later the FBI would admit to illegally surveilling and infiltrating groups like AIM (as well as the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, Black Liberation Army and others) through its controversial counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO.
Peltier, 71, has always insisted that he was innocent in the 1975 altercation that left two FBI agents dead.
Peltier admits that he was at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during the June 26, 1975, shootout, but says that he did not fire the shots that killed FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.
Through the years, Peltier’s case has been a bit of a cause célèbre, with supporters as far-flung as David Geffen, Nelson Mandela, U2, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as well as human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
“I’ve given the same answer for 40 years. I didn’t do it and I won’t say that I did. I won’t betray my people like that; I won't betray my culture,” said Peltier, whose refusal to admit guilt has caused him not to be paroled all these years.
“I was at Pine Ridge that day. I did exchange fire with the authorities who were shooting at us—but I didn’t kill those agents,” Peltier told the Daily News.
The outlet reports that Peltier is next up for parole in 2024 and that he suffers from diabetes, prostate problems, botched prison surgeries and an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
“I am prepared to die here. I would prefer it be back at my home, but I’m realistic about my chances,” he said.
Peltier also continues to hold out some hope that he may get a pardon from President Barack Obama. Letters asking for support are making the rounds in Congress, according to the Daily News.
Peltier got close to a pardon in 2001, when outgoing President Bill Clinton seemed to be on board but backed down after the protests of 500 current and retired FBI agents. On his last day in office, however, Clinton did pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich, who was among the FBI's Ten Most Wanted, to many people’s chagrin.
In 2009, President George W. Bush denied Peltier clemency.
“Whether people believe I did or didn’t do it, the fact remains I have served 40 years,” said Peltier.
We shall see if President Obama thinks that he deserves to be pardoned.
Read more at the New York Daily News.