For 40 years, Native American activist Leonard Peltier has been serving time for the murder of two FBI agents he’s constantly insisted he didn’t kill. However, a consequence of maintaining his innocence is that he’s been unable to obtain parole, even though many holes have been revealed in the case brought against him – including the FBI’s questionable tactics during the 1970s.
“I’ve given the same answer for 40 years. I didn’t do it and I won’t say that I did. I won’t betray my people like that, I won’t betray my culture,” Peltier told the New York Daily News.
Peltier has long moved his sights from getting a new trial to seeking clemency from the president. In 2001, President Bill Clinton considered offering him clemency until more than 500 current and former FBI agents spoke out in protest. President George W. Bush denied his request for clemency in 2009. Now, Peltier is on his third president and is hoping to gain support from Congress to support his request for President Obama.
After spending more than half of his life behind bars, the 79-year-old has grounded expectations of his future. Especially given the growing number of health conditions he’s been affected by, including complications from botched prison surgery, prostate problems, diabetes and an abdominal aortic aneurysm that’s 5 centimeters by 4.5 centimeters, just under the size where it can be operated on.
“I am prepared to die here. I would prefer it be back at my home, but I’m a realistic about my chances,” he said.
“I have my funeral all planned, I want a full ceremonial burial, with drumming, everything. Traditionally, it should be about three days,” he continued.
Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), one of the many militant activist groups from the 1970s that were targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiative. As a result, many have come to his side over the past few decades to ask for his release, however he feels the support may be having the opposite effect.
“It makes it easy for some people to dismiss what happened to me, that I got railroaded into prison,” he said. “They look at all the attention and say, ‘There go those liberals, trying to get someone off again.’”
Around 40 armed Native Americans and law enforcement officials were involved in a shootout on June 2, 1975 after agents allegedly came to arrest a man named Jimmy Eagle for stealing a pair of boots. As the shootout ensued, two agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, were shot dead.
Initially, three men were considered to be responsible for the shots that killed the agents, Peltier, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler. While Peltier fled to Canada, Robideau and Butler were acquitted due to claims of self-defense.
Peltier was illegally extradited back to the U.S. two years later and found guilty of murder by an all-white jury and given two life sentences. However, the prosecution used many questionable tactics that apparently weren’t enough for a judge to consider a retrial.
Now, Peltier’s main hope to live out his twilight years around friends is President Obama’s generosity towards the end of his term.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Gary Stevens