A 1975 shootout between FBI agents and supporters of the American Indian Movement (AIM) at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is largely forgotten today except for one loose end: Leonard Peltier.
The FBI reported that more than 40 people observed or participated in the shootout, which left two FBI agents and an AIM supporter dead.
Today Peltier is still in the maximum security Leavenworth Penitentiary, convicted of having approached the two wounded FBI agents and shooting them at close range.
Today its clear that the FBI and prosecutors withheld and even fabricated evidence that resulted in Peltiers conviction and sentencing to two consecutive life terms - while all of the other AIM supporters were either acquitted or not prosecuted.
Without arguing that he may not have belonged in prison at all, its clear hed be free by now had he been sentenced a bit more leniently. Several mitigating factors werent considered at his sentencing and should have reduced his punishment:
The FBI failed to consider legitimate grievances of Native Americans, over-reacted and escalated the violence at Pine Ridge, and shares in the responsibility for the outcome.
Peltier, having escaped to Canada, was extradicted on the basis of false testimony. A witness who, it later developed, couldnt have been there said she saw Peltier fire the fatal shots at close range.
FBI witnesses testified at Peltiers trial that ballistics evidence supported the murder charges. By the time the case reached appeal, however, they conceded there was no evidence that Peltier was the close-range shooter. Indeed, Peltiers lawyers say they have demonstrated that the ballistics evidence was fabricated and that Peltier could not have fired the fatal shots.
In 1991, Federal Judge Gerald Heaney, who heard and denied Peltiers appeal, wrote Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye to support Inouyes efforts to obtain clemency for Peltier. "At some point," wrote Heaney, "a healing process must begin. We as a nation must treat Native Americans more fairly. To do so, we must recognize their unique culture and their great contributions to our nation. Favorable action by the president in the Leonard Peltier case would be an important step in this regard." The president at the time was George Bush.
FBI agents, in an unprecedented display, marched on the White House recently to demonstrate their opposition to clemency for Peltier. Their belief appears to be that someone must pay dearly for the death of their two colleagues.
Today Peltier is internationally recognized, rightly or wrongly, as a political prisoner, winning the support of luminaries such as Nelson Mandela.
As one of his last acts in office, President Clinton should commute Peltiers sentence and let him go home.