Column, 485 words

Instead of Pardoning a Turkey, Obama Should Free This Man

This year, the president should extend some Thanksgiving clemency to human beings — starting with Leonard Peltier.

john-kiriakou

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve got a suggestion for President Barack Obama.

Instead of following the White House tradition and “pardoning“ a turkey destined for a holiday dinner table, Obama should extend that courtesy to some of the thousands of human beings caged up in America’s federal prisons.

Leonard Peltier should be one of them.

Peltier was a Native American activist on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s. On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents went to Pine Ridge to look for a young man named Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for robbery. Soon after they spotted his car, a shootout ensued.

Both agents and one of the occupants of the car were killed. A later shootout at the gunman’s home ended in two more deaths.

An FBI investigation turned up a gun with Peltier’s fingerprints on it, although there was no evidence he’d been involved in the murder of the agents. Peltier was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list and eventually captured in Canada.

Gary Stevens / Flickr

Gary Stevens / Flickr

His trial was controversial.

The prosecution’s evidence showed that the two agents were killed at close range — evidence that hadn’t been presented in the trial of two earlier defendants, who were acquitted. Peltier admitted to firing at the agents from a distance, but insisted that he hadn’t been in close proximity to them and hadn’t killed them.

Nonetheless, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

In the years after the trial, new evidence emerged indicating that Peltier couldn’t have killed the agents. An FBI ballistics expert found that the firing pin and cartridges used in the killings didn’t come from Peltier’s gun. And all three witnesses who placed Peltier at the scene of the killing later recanted, saying that they’d been coerced by the FBI and denied access to their attorneys.

Even the federal parole board wrote in 1993 that it  “recognizes that the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that Peltier participated in the executions of the two FBI agents.“

More than two decades later, Peltier still sits in a federal penitentiary in Florida, where he won’t be eligible for another parole hearing until he’s well into his 80s. He’s been incarcerated for 39 years.

An array of progressive, libertarian, and human rights groups have urged for Peltier to receive clemency. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark acts as his pro bono attorney. But the only thing that can help Peltier is presidential action.

It really looks like our government has locked up an innocent man. Isn’t it time to fix it?

With his presidency coming to a close and Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s the perfect time for Obama to offer a gesture to help make amends with our nation’s original people. Instead of pardoning a turkey, he should pardon Leonard Peltier.

OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s a former CIA counterterrorism officer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. OtherWords.org.

  • Ms Michaell Allen

    I met Leonard’s son a few weeks ago (he looks so much like his dad) and I bought a small reproduction of one of Leonard’s paintings, “Protector of the Woods”, which I absolutely love. I voted for Leonard when he was on the ballot for Pres in 2004. His son, who had been only 8 when they took his father away did not know about that. You can call the White House at 202-456-1414 to ask that he be pardoned, instead of the turkey. You can find out more atwww.whoisleonardpeltier.info

  • Julie

    thank you for this article, this topic needs much more attention!
    however, i’d like to make two notes, more emphasis on the second one:
    1) i’d say ‘in addition to’ pardoning turkeys, not instead
    2)
    i got the feels since the image of Peltier is from a mural two blocks from my
    home where i grew up in the Mission district of SF. i’m a bit sad the artwork is
    credited to the photographer (some white guy who takes pix of all
    his food like most other people), and not the muralist(s) who painted it….

    • certop

      thanks for this comment, julie. can you point us to the name of the artist?

  • Joan

    Yes, indeed, he deserves to be pardoned. I have read much over the years about Leonard Peltier. He was wrongly convicted and is the classic example of a political prisoner. The man is physically ill and should be allowed to go home to his family and die a free man. The injustice in this case is excruciating.

  • Annie Arthur

    Why not Pardon BOTH?? <3 They are Each innocent victims, in the "un-easy bake oven" of Banality & Fatality. Let's not have a bake off, rather a "Fake-Off." Truth-On, People!! Truth-On!!!

  • Mara Felsen

    eat the turkey. free the man.

  • Fareed Ansari

    Where is a petition? I’ll sign it.

  • Kelly Zimmerman-Frame

    He admitted to firing at them. I hardly call that innocent but I’d say he has more than paid his debt.

  • tl

    I know Peltier’s daughter, who laughs about her father’s killing of those two young men. The evidence is overwhelming that he did this horrific crime and is justifiably paying for it.
    It was a terrible time on the reservation and a lot of people were killed or wounded. The Native American activists were on the side of the angels in their efforts to help their people, but some devilish things happened.
    http://legendofpineridge.blogspot.com/2009/07/aim-myth-busters-ten-reasons-why.html

    • Mary Christensen

      Didn’t three hundred people die in under three years. Those were scary times. I grew up there and was 15 at the time. We weren’t allowed to drive across the reservation to get to Rapid City.

  • George Marlowe

    Let’s get to it Barack.

  • Harriet Russell

    Pardon both! Signed the Change.org petition. ….Beautifully painted mural!

  • Debbi Hume

    President Obama, here’s your opportunity to perform a very kind, humane act. Please release this innocent man!!!

  • Kristina Nicholas

    Leonard Peltier will never be freed, I think. The line of litigious barristers waiting for him at the gates of his prison would be endless. Our government does not voluntarily open themselves up to the sort of lawsuit that would follow such a release. It is a sad truth that much more justice would likely be served without the fiscal impact of those rabid few attorneys who will fight any battle that ends in a cash result. I root for justice. We need to find a way in which that justice is a real presence in a frantic way of life.

  • Mary Christensen

    I think the President won’t pardon Peltier before the 2016 elections and sure hope he does afterwards.

  • dougaji

    Yes I agree! Considering time done and all the new evidence he is should be free.

  • jamessimon500

    It is really quite disgraceful for a former CIA officer to be so clueless and idiotic about one of the most heinous acts ever committed against federal agents—the point-blank, in-the-face executions of FBI Agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler. Granted, Kiriakou represents the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, with a history of awarding people duped into fronting for inmate Peltier, but still, you’d think a former CIA official would be able to follow the logic. Instead, Kiriakou leads with lies and distortions, all of them debunked by American Indian Mafia in what should be a training manual for CIA operatives who have trouble sorting through propaganda. Here are some of Kiriakou’s falsehoods.

    1.” Peltier was a Native American activist on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s.”
    Fact: Peltier was a recent arrival on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975 when he opened fire on the agents. Having arrived a few months before the murders, Peltier had nothing to do with earlier “activism” on Pine Ridge. At the time, Peltier was a wanted UFAP fugitive (Unlaw Flight to Avoid
    Prosecution) in connection with the attempted murder of an off-duty Wisconsin police officer. Immediately following the murders, Peltier was on the run, never to return to Pine Ridge. When he was finally apprehended in Canada in February 1976, Peltier admitted he mistakenly believed the agents were looking for him. The agents were actually looking for Jimmy Eagle, wanted for the all-night assault of two young men. (The agents never “spotted his car” because it was not Eagle’s car.) The FBI did not know that one of their most wanted, Peltier, had recently taken up residence a quarter mile from the Jumping Bull Compound where the murders took place. Nearby, Peltier the fugitive and his friends were stockpiling an array of weapons including dynamite, hand grenades, and assault rifles. This apparently fits Kiriakou’s definition of “activist.”

    2. “A later shootout at the gunman’s home ended in two more deaths.”
    Kiriakou is either confused or duped–this description has no relation to the Peltier murders.

    3. “An FBI investigation turned up a gun with Peltier’s fingerprints on it, although there was no evidence he’d been involved in the murder of the agents.”
    Fact: There was all kinds of evidence that Peltier was involved in the murders, the bulk of which constituted his trial. Every judge who reviewed his case concluded as much, as stated by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals: “We affirmed the conviction on September 4, 1978. In Affirming, we too accepted the government’s theory that both agents had been killed with a high-velocity small-caliber weapon fired at point-blank range at a time when the men were seriously wounded and unable to defend themselves. We then held that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to find Peltier responsible for the murders.” It should surprise no one that Peltier has lost all of his appeals.

    4. “The prosecution’s evidence showed that the two agents were killed at close range — evidence that hadn’t been presented in the trial of two earlier defendants, who were acquitted.”
    Fact: The legal record and the trial of Robideau and Butler is replete with how Agents Coler and Williams were killed at close range. What the heck is Kiriakou talking about?

    5. “In the years after the trial, new evidence emerged indicating that Peltier couldn’t have killed the agents. An FBI ballistics expert found that the firing pin and cartridges used in the killings didn’t come from Peltier’s gun.”
    Fact: A special evidentiary hearing concluded that Kiriakou’s ballistics report referred to shell casings having nothing to do with the agents’ murders. On the other hand, shell casings found at the murder scene (over 100) were all matched to Peltier’s weapon. On this point, Peltier’s defense lawyers agreed.

    6. “And all three witnesses who placed Peltier at the scene of the killing later recanted, saying that they’d been coerced by the FBI and denied access to their attorneys.”
    Fact: Kiriakou seems to have lifted these lies from the late Peter Worthington’s columns. From far away Toronto, Worthington routinely falsified the legal record against Peltier. A former CIA officer should know better than to take the word of a progressive Canadian fabulist. As for Peltier’s trial, the fourth witness, Angie Long Visitor, never recanted her testimony of seeing Peltier repeatedly firing his weapon at the agents. With regard to the other three witnesses, the Eighth Circuit stated, “However, upon further questioning at the trial by the government attorney, they (the witnesses) stated that the testimony they gave at the trial was the truth, as best they remembered it. Thus, their testimony provided no support for the proposed defense instruction that the government induced them to testify falsely in this trial or in a related trial.” Kiriakou might like to know that the justices found just the opposite to be true: “The two witnesses testified outside the presence of the jury that after their testimony at trial, they had been threatened by Peltier himself that if they did not return to court and testify that their earlier testimony had been induced by F.B.I. threats, their lives would be in danger.”
    United States v. Peltier, 585 F. 2d 314, U.S. App. Decision September 14, 1978.

    7. “Even the federal parole board wrote in 1993 that it ‘recognizes that the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that Peltier participated in the executions of the two FBI agents.’”
    Fact. Kirakou conflates what the 1993 parole board said with out-of-context comments from a later parole board—really careless for a former intelligence officer writing for a supposedly serious institute. What Peltier’s 1993 parole board actually said in commenting on his aiding and abetting conviction:

    “… the greater probability is that you yourself fired the fatal shots… It would be unjust to treat the slaying of these F.B.I. agents, while they lay wounded and helpless, as if your actions had been part of a gun battle. Neither the state of relations between Native American militants and law enforcement at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation prior to June 26, 1975, nor the exchanges of gunfire between individuals at the Jumping Bull Compound and the law enforcement agents who arrived there during the hours after Agents Coler and Williams were murdered, explains or mitigates the crimes you committed…Your release on parole would promote disrespect for the law in
    contravention of 18 U.S.C….”

    As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve got a suggestion for Kiriakou: Get your facts straight before spouting off in defense of an unrepentant, cold-blooded cop killer who’s fooled the easily fooled, and now apparently, former CIA officials who pretend to know what they’re talking about. Is it any wonder that our intelligence organizations continue to miss the obvious and are now embroiled in a controversy of changing intelligence reports so as to mislead the American people?

  • jamessimon500

    Although Kiriakou deserves credit for standing up to CIA spying abuses against the American people, he should know better than to fall for a clever killer’s lies. It’s troubling when a con-artist fools a trained professional because as we’ve seen, it spawns more ignorance. In case we need more convincing, here’s some convincing quotes concerning the Bernie Madoff of political prisoners:

    “This story is true.”
    Leonard Peltier, assuring his supporters that a mysterious Mr. X shot the FBI agents, with what his lawyer, Mike Kuzma, later admitted was a complete “concoction.”

    “Peter, you put my life in jeopardy and you put the lives of my family in jeopardy by putting that bullshit in your books. Why didn’t you call me and ask me if it was true?”
    Dean Butler, chastising Peter Matthiessen for including Peltier’s lone alibi, Mr. X, in his book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. An AIM member, David Hill, reportedly played the role of Mr. X in a video aired on American television.

    “I seen Joe when he pulled it out of the trunk and I looked at him when he put it on, and he gave me a smile.”
    Leonard Peltier, standing over the bodies of Jack Coler and Ron Williams moments after their heads were blown off, commenting on Joe Stuntz wearing Jack Coler’s green FBI jacket taken from his car trunk, as quoted in Peter Matthiessen’s, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

    “I didn’t think nothing about it at the time: all I could think of was, We got to get out of here!”
    Leonard Peltier, reacting to Joe Stuntz wearing Jack Coler’s jacket, from In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Peltier could hear the chatter over the FBI car radio from other agents who were racing to the scene and attempting to re-establish contact with Agent Williams in response to his calls for help.

    “I heard the bullet go whizzing by my head.”
    FBI Agent Dean Hughes, describing Joe Stuntz shooting at him after being repeatedly warned to stop firing at responding law enforcement officers. A BIA officer returned fire and killed Stuntz, an ex-convict who had volunteered to stay behind and help Peltier escape from the murder scene, as quoted in American Indian Mafia.

    “The circumstantial evidence presented at the extradition hearing, taken alone [without the Poor Bear affidavits], constituted sufficient evidence to justify Mr. Peltier’s committal on the two murder charges.”
    Anne McLellen, Canadian Minister of Justice, in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, October 12, 1999.

    “The two witnesses testified outside the presence of the jury that after their testimony at trial, they had been threatened by Peltier himself that if they did not return to court and testify that their earlier testimony had been induced by F.B.I. threats, their lives would be in danger.”
    United States v. Peltier, 585 F. 2d 314, U.S. App. Decision September 14, 1978.

    “This story that the government admitted they don’t know who shot the agents comes from an out-of-context quote from prosecutor Lynn Crooks. Let me tell you something. I know Lynn Crooks, and there is no one on the planet more convinced of Peltier’s guilt than Lynn Crooks.”
    John M. Trimbach, American Indian Mafia

    Mark Potter: “Did you fire at those agents, Coler and Williams?
    Leonard Peltier: “I shot in their direction, yes.”
    CNN interview, Oct 1999. Later in the interview, Peltier finally admits he was near the two dead agents moments after their heads were blown off.

    “…I can’t tell the system I was shooting at their police officers that were trying to arrest me. They’ll hold that against me. I’ve got to be careful about that stuff.”
    Leonard Peltier, 1995 interview with Native journalist Richard LaCourse, admitting that he mistakenly believed the FBI agents were there to arrest him. At the time, Peltier was a wanted fugitive under UFAP (unlawful flight to avoid prosecution) for the attempted murder of a police officer in Wisconsin. Agents Coler and Williams were looking for someone else when Peltier opened fire approximately 175 yards from the FBI cars.

    “When all is said and done, however, a few simple but very important facts remain. The casing introduced into evidence in fact had been extracted from the Wichita AR-15. This point was not disputed.”
    Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Feb 1986, finding of fact that the shell casing found at the murder scene was ejected from the AR-15 assault rifle carried by Leonard Peltier.

    “The record as a whole leaves no doubt that the jury accepted the government’s theory that Peltier had personally killed the two agents, after they were seriously wounded, by shooting them at point blank range with an AR-15 rifle ….The critical evidence in support of this theory was a casing from a .223 caliber Remington cartridge recovered from the trunk of [the car of one of the murdered agents] … The district court, agreeing with the government’s theory … sentenced Peltier to two consecutive life sentences.”
    United States v. Peltier, 800 F.2d 772, 772-73 (8th Cir. 1986), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 822, 108 S. Ct. 84, 98 L. Ed. 2d 46 (1987)

    “There is no doubt that in June 1975 Leonard Peltier put a loaded gun in my mother’s mouth during one of her interrogations and that six months later, other members of the American Indian Movement carried out my mother’s torture, rape and murder. Leonard knows a lot about the people involved but even today, after all these years, he refuses to cooperate in the on-going murder investigation.”
    Denise Maloney, daughter of AIM murder victim Anna Mae Pictou Aquash (Mi’kmaq)

    “The motherf—er was begging for his life but I shot him anyway.”
    Sworn testimony attributed to Leonard Peltier, boasting in the Marlon Brando motor home about shooting Ron Williams, as heard by Dennis Banks, Ka-Mook Banks, Bernie Lafferty, and (soon-to-be-murdered) Anna Mae Aquash. According to the autopsy report, Ron Williams died with his right hand held up in front of his face; there were powder burns on his fingers.

    “But in the end, while crossing back and forth over the issue of ‘without doubt,’ and crossing back again to wonder, it simply took a delegation of people who were tired of all the deceptions, lies and dangers to step forward and tell me the truth. ‘Peltier was responsible for the close range execution of the agents…’ and that was the end of that.“
    Native journalist Paul DeMain, April 2, 2007, writing about “people who have agonized for years, grandfathers and grandmothers, AIM activists, Pipe carriers and others who have carried a heavy unhealthy burden within them that has taken its toll.”

    “… the greater probability is that you yourself fired the fatal shots… It would be unjust to treat the slaying of these F.B.I. agents, while they lay wounded and helpless, as if your actions had been part of a gun battle. Neither the state of relations between Native American militants and law enforcement at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation prior to June 26, 1975, nor the exchanges of gunfire between individuals at the Jumping Bull Compound and the law enforcement agents who arrived there during the hours after Agents Coler and Williams were murdered, explains or mitigates the crimes you committed…Your release on parole would promote disrespect for the law in contravention of 18 U.S.C….”

    Leonard Peltier’s 1993 Parole Board, commenting on his aiding and abetting conviction.

    “For me it’s something very heroic that he’s done. He’s putting himself at risk, seriously at risk. I will say this: that this brother is a very strong brother. He is not a cold-blooded murderer. He is not a bad person, he’s very kind, generous and sincere.”
    Leonard Peltier, 1991 Darrin Wood interview, describing the man who executed Ron Williams and Jack Coler.

    “I never thought my commitment would mean sacrificing like this, but I was willing to do so nonetheless. And really, if necessary, I’d do it all over again, because it was the right thing to do.”
    Peltier’s statement to supporters, Feb 6, 2010.

    Parole may be granted when the offender’s “…release would not depreciate the seriousness of the offense.”
    DOJ policy statement on parole.