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Free Leonard Peltier: Obama Urged to Grant Clemency to Native American Activist Jailed for 40 Years

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As President Obama’s last month in office begins, Amnesty International and other groups are calling on the president to grant clemency to Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who has been imprisoned for 40 years. The former member of the American Indian Movement was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a shootout on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Leonard Peltier has long maintained his innocence. The shootout occurred two years after the American Indian Movement occupied the village of Wounded Knee for 71 days. The occupation of Wounded Knee is considered the beginning of what Oglala people refer to as the “Reign of Terror.” We speak to Peltier’s attorney, Martin Garbus, and Norman Patrick Brown, a longtime friend of Leonard Peltier’s. He survived the 1975 Pine Ridge shootout.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Obama granted clemency to 231 prisoners—the most individual acts of clemency granted in a single day by any president in U.S. history. Obama pardoned 78 people and shortened the sentences of 153 others convicted of federal crimes. He has now pardoned a total of 148 people during his presidency and has shortened the sentences of 1,176 people, including 395 serving life sentences. Most of the cases have involved people serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. According to the White House, Obama has commuted more sentences than the last 11 presidents combined.

But Obama has taken no action on several of the most high-profile prisoners seeking pardons or clemency. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions asking President Obama to release Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera, Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning and Native American activist Leonard Peltier. We’ll look at Manning’s case later in the show and Oscar López Rivera’s later in the week, but first we turn to the case of Leonard Peltier. This is a video from Amnesty International, which has been pushing for President Obama to grant Leonard Peltier clemency. This video is narrated by actor Peter Coyote.

LEONARD PELTIER: I am everyone who ever died without a voice or a prayer or a hope or a chance.

PETER COYOTE: Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist who has been in prison for 40 years, serving two consecutive life terms for a crime he maintains he did not commit. In 1977, he was convicted of killing two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement, AIM, founded in 1968 during the civil rights movement to advocate for the rights of Native Americans. The murders occurred at a time when AIM supporters and residents of Pine Ridge were being intimidated and killed, allegedly by paramilitaries connected to the government. A climate of fear and terror prevailed. After two AIM members were acquitted of the killings, witnesses were coerced by the FBI into saying they saw Peltier shoot the agents. Ballistics evidence that could have aided Leonard’s defense was hidden from his lawyers.

LEONARD PELTIER: The only thing I’m guilty of is struggling for my people. I didn’t kill those agents.

PETER COYOTE: It was not a fair trial—the conclusion reached by Federal Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney, who stated, “[T]he prosecution withheld evidence” favorable to the defendant, and “[T]he FBI used improper tactics” in extraditing Peltier and otherwise in investigating and trying Peltier’s case.

LEONARD PELTIER: I’ll be an old man when I get out—if I get out.

PETER COYOTE: Leonard Peltier has spent 40 years in federal penitentiaries, often in solitary confinement. He is now 71 years old and in rapidly declining health. There are concerns that he’s not receiving adequate medical treatment and his condition could be fatal.

BRUCE SMITH: They’re giving him the death penalty by leaving him in that type of an environment. The man needs medical treatment. He needs to have access to medical treatment. If they’re not going to give medical treatment to him, they need to release him as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a video from Amnesty International, which is calling for President Obama to grant Leonard Peltier clemency. That last voice was Bruce Smith, a former prison guard who worked at Leavenworth federal prison, where he met Leonard Peltier. Peltier is now imprisoned in Florida.

To talk more about the case of Leonard Peltier, we’re joined by two guests. Martin Garbus is one of the country’s leading trial lawyers and lead counsel for Leonard Peltier. Norman Patrick Brown is a longtime friend of Leonard Peltier’s. He survived the 1975 Pine Ridge shootout. He’s joining us from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Martin Garbus, lay out the case. You have asked President Obama, or the White House, for a pardon for Leonard Peltier, or clemency.

MARTIN GARBUS: He was convicted in 1975. He was involved in the Wounded—shortly after the Wounded Knee shootout. The evidence in the case, acknowledged by the government and acknowledged by the federal judges, is that the FBI does not know who shot the two people, that the ballistics do not support the argument that Leonard Peltier did it.

The important thing at this time, for your listeners, is to write to the president. Amnesty International has a site which allows you to join their petition. Over 100,000 people thus far have joined the petition. There are about 300,000 additional letters. So this is a case of a man who’s been in jail now for 44 years, six years in solitary, a case that one of the judges who presided in the case, the appellate judge, Judge [Heaney], said that Peltier should be released because of the wrongful conduct of the judge. There are—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what that conduct was.

MARTIN GARBUS: The wrongful conduct was not producing at the trial the ballistics, which show that it could not have been Peltier’s gun that did the shooting. The wrongful conduct was—and the government acknowledges at this point—using false affidavits, both in the case and to extradite him from Canada, where he had been led. In this particular case, two other people were charged for the case, convicted—murder. Both of those people were found innocent.

AMY GOODMAN: And he would have been tried alongside them, but he had fled to Canada.


AMY GOODMAN: So he was extradited and tried separately.

MARTIN GARBUS: Yes. But the proof against the other defendants was that it was their guns, etc., etc. Nonetheless, in part because of the wrongful conduct of the FBI, they were—

AMY GOODMAN: And what was that wrongful conduct?

MARTIN GARBUS: The withholding of ballistics, the refusal—they didn’t turn the ballistics over to the U.S. attorney. The other wrongful conduct was it was they who got the false affidavits, acknowledged to be false and found by the court to be false. So, the only reason he was convicted was, A, the political atmosphere of the time, and, two, they succeeded, the government, in having the case tried before a judge, a very anti-Indian judge, rather than the judge who was involved in the acquittal of the other two defendants.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Leonard Peltier in his own words, describing what happened at Pine Ridge on June 26, 1975, the day when the two FBI agents were shot dead.

LEONARD PELTIER: That next day, when it came down, I was down into the camp, and I heard some shooting going on up over by the ranch house. At first I didn’t pay no attention to it, because there was some—there’s a dam, of course, by there, about a mile away. I used to hear shooting there. We used to hear shooting there every day. Somebody used to be practicing there with automatic weapons. We think it was some of the GOON squads. You know, we don’t know for sure. But at first, that’s what we thought it was. And then, all of a sudden, we heard people screaming and hollering, and so we ran up there. And I—we see what was happening: There’s a shootout going on. So, I ran into the houses, because there was little babies there and women and children and stuff like this here. And I got them out of there and told them to get out of there. By this time, we were surrounded, and the shootout lasted for about—well, from about 11:00 that morning ’til about 7:00 that night.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Leonard Peltier in his own words. Norman Patrick Brown, you were there that day in Pine Ridge. You survived the 1975 Pine Ridge shootout. Can you describe what happened?

NORMAN PATRICK BROWN: Yeah, Amy. It was a—it was a horrific day. It was a tragic day, for we lost three good men that day. And my role there was as the youngest fighter there of a group of people who were encamped there. We were a spiritual encampment, there to protect the Oglala people, the traditional people, and AIM members from their brutality, of the BIA police GOON squad, which were armed and trained by the FBI.

To this day, it’s been a tough life for many of us. I just want to state that, from that day that the agents lost their lives, we’ve prayed for them continuously, and we feel for their families. And we’re not happy about that day. I’m not happy of that day.

And, you know, I was used as a federal witness. I was coerced. My rights were not respected, my constitutional right to a lawyer. My life was threatened. My mother’s life was threatened also, my family. And I basically said some things that were not true. And I have since recanted those statements in court. In fact, the first two trials of Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, Leonard Peltier’s co-defendants, one of the lawyers had asked the jurors—asked the jurors who was the most believable witness, and they said Norman Brown. And he said, “See, Norman, all these years of the suffering and the hardships of your life from this case was because of your statement that we created, the self-defense statement that acquitted Bob and Dino that day.”

So, you know, I guess what I did that day is, the shooting happened, and I ran up there, and immediately we were surrounded. And we exchanged gunfire. And I was not there at the time that the agents lost their life and Joe lost their life. To this day, I don’t want to know, and I do not know.

But one thing I want to say, Amy, is that there’s this demonization of Leonard as a thug, as a murderous criminal, but that’s far from the truth. He is a very kind man. He’s a generous man. He’s a very funny person. You know, his people knew him as the person that he was. He was very kindhearted. And that was the reason why he went up to Pine Ridge, because the elders had asked him to lead this effort in protecting the various communities from the murders, from the gunfire, from the beatings, that were directed at the American Indian Movement members. So, I was a part of that group. There was many of us that were a part of that group. And we knew that—

AMY GOODMAN: Norman, I wanted—

NORMAN PATRICK BROWN: —why we were there. It was a very—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Martin Garbus about the presence of the FBI on the Pine Ridge Reservation that day.

MARTIN GARBUS: Well, the United States Civil Rights Commission afterwards concluded that the FBI was an occupying force on the reservation, that they had free rein and were arresting people and beating people. And that was the situation when Wounded Knee started.

There’s one other thing I’d like to mention. This was the time of Nixon. This was the time of Alexander Haig. And they called out the military. It’s called a posse comitatus. They called out the military to shoot at the Wounded Knee Indians, who were encircled, so that you had—by the way, President Clinton, we understand, was about to grant clemency. And when that happened, the FBI staged a demonstration outside of the White House, 500 men with guns—first time that has ever been done. Clinton withdrew back.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to that interview that I did with President Clinton and asked him about clemency. It was back in 2000. Many of Leonard Peltier’s supporters had high hopes that outgoing President Bill Clinton would pardon him before the end of his second term. On Election Day, which was November 7, 2000, I got a chance to question President Clinton and asked him if he had any intention of issuing a pardon for Leonard Peltier.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your position on granting Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist, executive clemency?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Well, I don’t—I don’t have a position I can announce yet. I think if—I believe there is a new application for him in there. And when I have time, after the election is over, I’m going to review all the remaining executive clemency applications and, you know, see what the merits dictate. I will try to do what I think the right thing to do is based on the evidence. And I’ve never had the time actually to sit down myself and review that case. I know it’s very important to a lot of people, maybe on both sides of the issue. And I think I owe it to them to give it an honest look-see. So, part of my responsibilities in the last 10 weeks of office after the election will be to review the requests for pardons and executive clemencies and give them a fair hearing. And I pledge to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: And you will give an answer in his case?

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Oh, yeah, I’ll decide one way or the other.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was President Clinton, Election Day 2000. And we know which way he decided. Mass protests by the FBI.

MARTIN GARBUS: And he pardoned Marc Rich.


MARTIN GARBUS: Well, he had a whole bunch of pardons. Marc Rich was a corrupt person, involved heavily with Clinton, someone who had been a donor to his campaigns, no question about the rightness of his conviction.

AMY GOODMAN: A millionaire financier, fugitive from justice, living in Switzerland.

MARTIN GARBUS: No support at all for his granting pardon and clemency. And then he denied it to Peltier. He told us—Clinton—within the period before he was going to step down, because of the election in 2000, that he would grant clemency to Leonard Peltier. And it was clear that it was the FBI demonstration. And the FBI opposes now, and they have started a letter-writing campaign to Obama saying, “Do not release him, do not release him.” That’s why it’s so important that your viewers respond, either by going to the Amnesty International site, but by themselves writing to the president.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we see the FBI director is extremely powerful, James Comey, who may have tipped the election for Donald Trump.

MARTIN GARBUS: Surely. The other thing I want to mention is, if it’s not done now, President Trump is highly unlikely. The next pardon is 2014 [sic, next eligible for parole in 2024]. Leonard is sick now. He won’t make it to his next pardon. He won’t make it through a Trump presidency, I fear.

AMY GOODMAN: What word have you gotten from the White House?

MARTIN GARBUS: No word. Well, we have submitted it to the pardon attorneys, who then have to send it on to the president. We understand that it has left the pardon office and is now on the president’s desk.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: And I want to thank Norman Patrick Brown for joining us from Albuquerque. Martin Garbus, one of the leading trial lawyers in this country. This is Democracy Now! We will continue to follow the call for clemency for Leonard Peltier, as we do a series on high-profile prisoners that President Obama is weighing their clemency. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to look at the case of Chelsea Manning. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Water protectors from Standing Rock praying with a sacred song with the Ta Oyate Olowan drum from Wounded Knee, here in Democracy Now!'s studio. A group of the water protectors were holding up a sign for Leonard Peltier. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

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