LEWSIBURG, Pa. – There’s a digital clock on the official Leonard Peltier Web site marking the time the American Indian Movement activist has been in prison.
On a recent visit to www.leonardpeltier.net the clock read “12241 days, 12 hours, 17 minutes, and 43 seconds of ILLEGAL IMPRISONMENT,” then “12241 days, 12 hours, 17 minutes, and 44 seconds of ILLEGAL IMPRISONMENT,” “12241 days, 12 hours, 17 minutes, and 45 seconds of ILLEGAL IMPRISONMENT” and so on – a constant countdown that will either end within several days or continue for an unknown period of time, perhaps years, possibly until Peltier’s life ends.
The Federal Parole Board is expected to render a decision on whether Peltier will be released from prison after serving 33 years on two murder charges by Aug. 21.
Peltier was granted his second parole hearing since 1993 July 28, and appeared before the board to plead his case. The board has 21 days to decide whether to release Peltier or deny parole and keep him in prison indefinitely.
Peltier was convicted in 1977 and given two consecutive life sentences for the murder of FBI Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams, who were killed during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota June 26, 1975.
The 64-year-old man has maintained his innocence, but controversy over whether he committed the murders, and over the fairness of his trial persist.
Those convinced of his guilt say he shot the two agents in cold blood and deserves to stay in prison for the rest of his life.
Peltier’s supporters, which include a huge international component, say he is America’s most famous and longest serving political prisoner.
But Peltier’s attorney, Eric Seitz, said the only issue pertinent is the law and that Peltier is eligible for parole.
The events of June 26, 1975 took place against a backdrop of terror that had developed on Pine Ridge. The reservation was under internal siege at the hands of then Chairman Dick Wilson and his “GOON Squad” – the so-called Guardians of the Oglala Nation, who were supported by and collaborated with the FBI and BIA police.
The conflict has been characterized as a battle between Wilson’s secular group and traditional elders and others who were working for election reform on the reservation. More than 60 people from the traditional group had been killed in the two years before the 1975 shootout. None of those killings were investigated by local, state or federal law enforcement agencies.
By 1975 things were so bad that some of the tribe’s elders called AIM for help. A group of AIM activists, Peltier among them, responded and set up a camp on the reservation. On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents in unmarked cars came onto the reservation apparently to serve a warrant to a boy who had stolen some boots. Soon after their arrival, shots were heard and the shoot-out began.
During the battle, the FBI agents and an Indian man named Joe Stuntz were shot to death. The activists fled, anticipating that the reservation would be overrun by FBI and other law enforcement people, which was exactly what happened. In the siege that followed, elders were beaten, houses were burned, people were terrorized and a lot of gun shots were fired.
Peltier escaped to Canada where he was later captured, extradited and brought to trial. Four of the AIM activists were indicted on murder charges, but only Peltier was convicted.
Over the years and through numerous appeals, dozens of allegations and inconsistencies have come to light regarding the FBI and the prosecution’s handling of the case, including witnesses recanting testimony against Peltier and accusing the FBI of coercing and threatening them into testifying; the FBI tampering with evidence and withholding crucial evidence from the jury, including the results of a ballistics report saying the bullet casing from the crime scene did not match Peltier’s gun, and the prosecutor himself conceding during an appellate hearing that, “We do not know who shot the agents.”
There are those who believe Peltier did not shoot them, but that the AIM members had the right to defend themselves under the circumstances.
“The AIM members didn’t go there looking for a fight or seeking confrontation. They were there to protect those who were there. When our people need help our warriors are supposed to respond and help. These warriors stood up and responded. We have the right to self defense,” said Wanbli, Dakota, national spokesman for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.
Others, like News from Indian Country editor Paul DeMain, said, “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. I have no reason to doubt the group of people, and others I have since conversed with, that they are telling the truth.”
While the debate continues over Peltier’s guilt or innocence, his attorney said the parole board’s decision must be based on the law. He has served the mandatory amount of time and is eligible for parole, Seitz said.
The criteria for parole include a prisoner’s record in prison, the likelihood of returning to prison if released, post-prison plans, and whether parole would diminish the seriousness of the offense.
“The last one is really the only issue and some people think he shouldn’t be paroled because the offense was too serious, but that basically means you could never be paroled, and that’s not the law,” Seitz said.
Peltier’s plan, if released, is to return home where his tribe has arranged a place for him to live and a job teaching art. He would be surrounded by people who can support his transition to life outside of prison, Seitz said.
“Leonard is feeling very apprehensive. He’s hopeful that he gets out. His health (he’s diabetic) is not very good, so he’s concerned about that and his ability to maintain himself in an environment where he doesn’t get timely or very aggressive medical care so we hope all these things will be taken into account when they make their decision.”