Incarceration Nation

“Plant A Tree for Me”

Leonard Peltier reflects on hitting 48 years in prison

By Jennifer Bendery

February 6, 2023, marks 48 years in prison for Leonard Peltier, the Indigenous rights activist who the U.S. government put behind bars after a trial riddled with misconduct and lies—and who definitely doesn’t belong there anymore.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office made a fall guy out of Peltier, now 78, when they convicted him of murdering two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They never had evidence that he murdered anyone, and the amount of wrongdoing that took place in his trial is mind-boggling: Government prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying. Peltier was separated from his co-defendants, all of whom were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. A juror admitted she was racist against Native Americans on the second day of the trial but was allowed to remain on the panel.

Peltier has maintained his innocence for all of these years, even as it almost certainly prevented him from being paroled.

His decades-long parole process has been so problematic that United Nations legal experts last year made the unusual decision to revisit his case. Over the summer, they called on President Joe Biden to release Peltier immediately.

Their working group concluded in a damning 17-page legal opinion that between Peltier’s advanced age, deteriorating health, frequent placement in solitary confinement and the difference between his time in prison compared to non-Native Americans convicted of similar offenses, “Mr. Peltier continues to be detained because he is Native American.”

Peltier is still sitting in a Florida penitentiary despite all of these problems; despite pleas for his freedom by international human rights leaders including Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King; despite nearly 50 years of concerts and letter-writing campaigns and petitions circulated by thousands of supporters, politicians, Indigenous leaders and celebrities urging his release. He uses a walker now. He is blind in one eye from a partial stroke. He has serious health concerns related to diabetes and an aortic aneurysm.

Why is he still in prison? The FBI simply doesn’t want him to get out, ever, even as its stated argument for keeping him there is wildly outdated, misleading, and flat-out wrong.

Biden, who has been a strong advocate for policies that lift up tribes and Native American communities, could unilaterally release Peltier if he wanted to. Two years into his presidency, though, he has stayed silent.

Asked Monday if Peltier is on Biden’s radar and if he is considering granting him clemency, a White House spokesman referred to the last statement sent to HuffPost on this topic. HuffPost routinely asks the White House about Peltier but does not get a response.

The last time HuffPost remembers getting a response was in February 2022, with this statement from a Biden spokesman: “We are aware of Mr. Peltier’s request for a pardon and the outreach in support of his request. As many of you know, President Biden has a process for considering all requests for pardon or commutation, which is run through our White House Counsel’s Office. I don’t have more to share on Mr. Peltier’s request at this time.”

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which reviews inmates’ clemency petitions, does not respond to questions about the status of clemency petitions. A February 6, 2023, email to this office triggered an auto-response that directed HuffPost to the office’s website to search for information on the status of any inmate’s clemency petition. The status of Peltier’s petition, which was filed more than a year-and-a-half ago, simply says, “Pending.”

HuffPost, February 6, 2023