When I left my job after 28 years as a federal prosecutor to volunteer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I was warned by a friend in the community, “do yourself a favor, never state an opinion about Leonard Peltier.” We both assumed I would oppose Peltier's release from prison; we were wrong.
Peltier is an American Indian activist who was convicted in 1977 of the 1975 murders of FBI Special Agents Jack R. Coler, 28, and Ronald A. Williams, 27, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The murders were horrific: The two young agents went to the Reservation to arrest a fugitive, a shootout occurred, they were outnumbered, and when they attempted to surrender they were shot in the head, at close range.
Law enforcement, the victims’ families and the public have an obvious interest in holding someone accountable for the murders.
Having lost the criminal trials against the first two men charged with the murders, however, government agents reportedly broke the law to ensure that Leonard Peltier would not get off. According to court records: agents provided false affidavits to a court; testimony was coerced; and critical documents that conflicted with the government’s primary theory of the case were withheld from Peltier’s attorneys.
Based on a record that many courts today would characterize a “corrupted investigation,” a jury found Peltier guilty. Reviewing courts did not reverse the conviction, but in a truly extraordinary move, the judge who authored the opinion that upheld the guilty verdict later urged the Committee on Indian Affairs to take action to release Peltier, writing:
“the US government over-reacted … and must share responsibility for the ... firefight…. The FBI used improper tactics in
securing Peltier’s extradition ... and in otherwise investigating and trying the Peltier case.”
Humanitarians from around the world have called for Peltier's release and after four decades of controversy, he is an icon who symbolizes the historic and continuing injustices facing many American Indians: forced relocations, breached treaties, coercive removals of children, involuntary sterilization of women, racism, abuse in the hands of law enforcement and worse.
The argument for Peltier’s release is exceptionally compelling, particularly when viewed in its historic context.
The murders of agents Coler and Williams occurred in the wake of the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a violent episode that reflected a boiling point of discontent over problems in Native communities. During the FBI’s well-meaning but Waco-like response and eventual retreat, the crisis escalated, and undermined the community’s already rocky relations with federal authorities.
On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Coler and Williams went to the unstable Pine Ridge Reservation to hunt for a fugitive without proper back-up. This is neither to cast blame on the federal government nor to justify the murders - but to provide context. We send fully loaded Navy Seal teams into less dangerous situations, to ensure the team’s safety.
It is significant that just miles away from where the agents were shot, less than a century earlier more than 100 unarmed Lakota men, women and children were murdered at Wounded Knee by the 7th Cavalry. Although a Concurrent Resolution of Congress expressed “deep regret” for the Massacre, the US government refuses to revoke more than 20 Medals of Honor that were issued to Military Officers and men who murdered the unarmed Lakota.
People instinctively reply that Lakota families should “get over” the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and yet, they never would suggest that the Coler and Williams families should “get over” the federal agents’ deaths.
The only way to reconcile our government’s perpetual celebration of the senseless deaths of hundreds of unarmed Lakota with its heavy-handed and uncompromising pursuit of justice for the senseless deaths of two federal agents, is to place a significantly lower value on the lives of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children.
Perhaps the greatest irony, however, is that the integrity of the system of justice that Special Agents Coler and Williams died for is tarnished if—as courts have reported—to secure Peltier’s conviction, federal agents over-reached, turned a blind eye to leads that weakened their case and withheld relevant evidence that they were sworn to produce to Peltier’s attorneys.The American justice system is designed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.
Although the murder of two FBI agents is among the most significant crimes imaginable, Peltier has spent four decades in prison and justice has been served for the murders of Special Agents Coler and Williams.
Now, it is time to give due respect to the integrity of the American system of justice for which the brave federal agents died. It is time for President Obama to grant Clemency to Leonard Peltier.
Cynthia K. Dunne, Esq., is a director of a nonprofit corporation that works with youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. For 28 years Cindy worked as an Assistant United States Attorney/Senior Trial Counsel in Office of the US Attorney for Southern District of New York, where she prosecuted a broad variety of cases including public corruption and civil rights offenses.