Ten years ago, Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement (AIM) leader, was tried and convicted of the 1975 murders of two FBI agents. The two agents were killed during an FBI “paramilitary” attack against suspected AIM supporters at the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation. The 1975 battle with federal agents stemmed from the transfer of thousands of acres of the Pine Ridge Reservation, known to contain uranium and other minerals, to the federal government.
The initial evidence against Peltier was overwhelming. A woman, Myrtle Poor Bear, described as Peltier’s girl friend, said she had seen Peltier kill the two FBI agents. An FBI chief ballistics expert also reported that the casing found next to the bodies were from Peltier’s AR-15 rifle. The ballistics report was considered to be the prosecutions “most critical piece of evidence.” later evidence discredited both the woman (who admitted she had never met Peltier but had been coerced into testifying by the FBI) and the ballistics testimony (the casing were not identifiable with Peltier’s rifle).
Despite the new evidence, Federal Judge Paul Benson denied Peltier a new trial on May 22, 1985. It was the third time Peltier’s case came before Judge Benson and the third time he was denied due process.
Efforts to remove Judge Benson from the case on the basis of statements he made out of court showing bias against Native Americans were unsuccessful.
The Peltier case clearly suggests FBI misconduct and questionable decision-making in the Federal Court. Peltier’s conviction also has been questioned by several congressmen, by U.S. civil liberties groups, and by foreign figures such as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. Peltier also has become the focus of attention in the Soviet Union where an estimated 15 million Soviet citizens have signed a petition appealing to President Reagan to release him.
Meanwhile, few Americans have even heard of Peltier or, as TIME MAGAZINE, pointed out “Leonard Peltier is not exactly a household name in the U.S.”
The Soviet’s reported injustice to Andrei Sakharov has received more attention in the U.S. media in the past three years than Leonard Peltier has received in the past ten years. One would think an American citizens deserves at least equal time in the mass media.
TIME MAGAZINE, 11/25/85, “Countering America’s Crusade,” and 7/9/84, “Point, Counterpoint;” CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, 10/17/85, “Appeal Heard in Case of Indian Convicted of Killing FBI Agents,” and 12/19/85, “Peltier Case; Shoot-Out at Wounded Knee,” by David l. Kirp; THE NATION, 6/22/85, “The Peltier Case,” by Nicholas Hentoff; PEOPLE’S WORLD, 1/25/86, “Peltier awaits new, fair trial,” by Antonio Garcia; MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE, 12/13/82, “Was Leonard Peltier Framed?” by Linda McQuaig; L.A. TIMES, 11/20/85, “Message from Soviets.”