Friday, May 04, 2012

Justice for all? Ask Leonard Peltier

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Justice for all? Mmmm, I doubt it. Everyone is talking these days about the vigilante that shot Trayvon Martin in Florida. But there's Leonard Peltier, the American Indian in jail for a murder he may not have committed.

Peltier, a Lakota Indian, was found guilty in 1977 of the murder of two FBI agents during a shootout in the Pine Ridge Reservation in Oglala, South Dakota, in 1975.

The trial was riddled with irregularities. Three witnesses that initially pointed to Peltier near the shootout site, later recanted. And the bullet case found near where the bodies laid, was never connected to Peltier's rifle.

Neverthless, Peltier has been rotting in a prison cell, in poor health and with no possibility of a hearing parole until 2024. The government needed a guilty verdict for the murders and Peltier, an activist and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), seemed the right person.

The seventies were turbulent years for Indians in this country. A 71 days standoff between the FBI and dozens of Indians in 1973 in Wounded Knee in South Dakota, left numerous dead and strained the relationship between Indians and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The violence then spread to the Pine Ridge Reservation were it is estimated that more than 50 people were killed in the next two years by paramilitary groups inside the reserve, lead by the notorious tribal member Richard Wilson.

On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, entered the Pine Ridge Reservation looking for an Indian accused of robbing in a nearby farm. The agents crossed paths with a red pickup truck whose occupants stared firing at them. Minutes later, both agents laid on the ground dead. The unknown shooters took off.

Peltier was at Pine Ridge, where he was trying to calm things down as violence spread by the ¿Goons¿ (the paramilitary group) was leaving a bloody trail. Peltier was there as a representative of AIM.

In a couple of hours, dozens of FBI agents stormed the reserve and a manhunt began. Peltier ran away because he was being sought after by the FBI in connection with a murder in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, years ago. He was afraid of being caught.

Peltier and some other men traveled through various states and ended up hiding in the province of Alberta, Canada. Finally, in February of 1976, he was apprehended and extradited to the United States where he was charged for the murders of Coler and Williams.

The trial was full of irregularities. The three witnesses that pointed that Peltier was seen at the site of the shootout later recanted and confessed that they were coerced by the FBI to incriminate Peltier.
A ballistic expert said during the trial that a bullet case found near the agent's bodies was fired from Peltier¿s rifle but a few years later, when the records were made public thanks to a FOIA request, it was known that the expert was not able at the end to connect the bullet case to Peltier¿s rifle, finding that was hidden from the jury.

These are just but a few of the inconsistencies and irregularities that riddled the case against Leonard Peltier.

Today, Peltier, 67 years old, is locked up in a prison cell at the Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Florida. He could be free in 2040. His next parole hearing would not happen until before 2024.
During his years behind bars, Peltier has become a symbol of the struggle for American Indians. His case attracted the attention of world leaders, like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who requested his immediate release. Amnesty International has put his name in the list of ¿political prisoners¿ and has also requested his release.

The story of Leonard Peltier was at the center of a documentary directed by Michael Apted and produced and narrated by Robert Redford, ¿An Inciden at Oglala¿ (1992), which won numerous awards.

According to the 2010 Census, there are about 5.2 million American Indians in the US, about 1.7% of the total population.


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