Leonard Peltier: New Try for Justice

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

Bob Robideau

ON JULY 29, 1991 Leonard Peltier was to appear to testify in his own behalf at a hearing in Fargo, North Dakota. Peltier is a Native American activist who has served more than fourteen years in federal prisons. [See accompanying article for update—ed.]

In April 1977 Peltier received two consecutive life terms from a conviction obtained fraudulently by the U.S. government Peltier was found guilty of the premeditated murder of two FBI agents, based on the government’s theory that he personally shot them at close range during a June 26,1975shootout between a small number of American Indian Movement (AIM) members and a large FBI force on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

The government has ad-milled before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that they don’t know who killed the agents And as Peter Matthiessen’s book In the Spirit of Crazy Home reveals, another individual—and not Leonard Peltier— shot and killed the agents in self-defense.

Peltier’s attorneys, Bill Kunstier and Bruce Ellison, intend to show that Peltier was not afforded due process, because the government did not inform him of the charges on which he was being tried. If Peltier had been tried as an “aider and abetter” rather than as a “principal” in the killing, he would have been able to present proof—as defendants Robert Robideau and Darrell Butler successfully did in a separate trial—that all his actions on June 26, 1975 were in defense of himself and other men, women and children present during the FBI’s all-out assault on the Jumping Bull homes.

– Peltier’s intent is to show through witnesses and evidence that the government created a climate of fear and intimidation which so biased the trial judge and jurors that he was denied his right of due process. Because he was not allowed to present an argument of self-defense and because the jurors’ minds had been poisoned by government-instilled fear of Peltier’s family and Mends, they convicted him on the first day of the trial.

Robert Bolin, the jury foreman in the Butler-Robideau trial, stated in an interview that evidence presented on self-defense in that trial was critical in finding Butler and Robideau innocent of aiding and abetting. Bolin also said that any judge who wouldn’t allow evidence of self-defense “would not be presenting a fair case.”

Speaking of the U.S. government’s attempt to create fear around AIM, Bolin said that “if we were going to be frightened by anybody, I’d be more frightened by the FBI. In fact when we got to the verdict, I thought the U.S. marshals were going to kill all twelve of us on the spot.”

A request for habeas corpus filed last December brought these issues to the July district court hearing. The case came before Magistrate Karen Klein, who was appointed by the original trial judge, Judge Benson, in a surprise move—after Benson had previously denied a motion asking that he remove himself from the case because of racial bias. Kunstler explains Benson’s turn-around as an effort to gain distance from the case “because it is becoming too hot to handle.”

FBI documents received through the Freedom of Information Act firmly establish that the FBI implemented a plan to convince Judge Benson that his safety and the security of his courthouse were in danger from Peltier’s family and friends. Because he believed the FBI’s lies, Benson accepted a 24-hour personal security guard.

Peltier intends to call Benson as a witness because of the judge’s participation in a meeting with the FBI concerning “security” precautions. Benson’s participation in these meetings violated hisjudicial oath to be fair and impartial.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has twice denied Peltier’s appeals for a new trial. But in an interview on the TV program “West 57th Street” (CBS) in 1989, Senior Judge Heaney of the 8th Circuit Court said he “felt uncomfortable” with his decision.

Judge Heaney has recently come forward in a letter, joining Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye’s effort to gain a presidential pardon for Peltier. In his letter Heaney states, “Instead of considering the legitimate grievance of the Native Americans, the response [of the U.S. government] was essentially a military one which culminated in a deadly flrefight.”

He goes on to say that “the U.S. government must share the responsibility” in the deaths of the agents and Native Americans, because “the FBI used improper tactics in investigating and trying the Peltier case.”

FBI documents secured through a suit by Peltier’s attorneys demonstrate that the government was waging a campaign from the early 1970s to destroy AIM. The FBI’s tactics were perfected through its now infamous COINTELPRO program, officially used from 19511971 against individuals and organizations that dissented from U.S. government policies.

The FBI continues to function as the government’s political police against those who choose to challenge its authority. In an early 1970s memorandum, the FBI went so far as to declare AIM to be the “most violent and extremist-oriented organization yet encountered by the United States.” In )une 1974, the FBI placed six SWAT teams on alert to be utilized in “a paramilitary law enforcement operation in the Indian country.”

Leonard Peltier was one of the leaders targeted by the FBI. A teletype issued by the FBI reported that “[L. Peltier] has been observed at Indian takeovers but identity was not realized until after subject de- area.”

In the all-out effort it undertook to destroy AIM by “neutralizing” its leadership, the FBI formed an alliance with pro-government tribal chief Dick Wilson’s private police force, the Coon (“Guardians of the Oglala Nation”) Squad. Duane Brewer, a Goon Squad leader, acknowledged in a documentary interview that the FBI played a supportive role toward the Coon Squad—resulting in sixty murders and 200 assaults from 1972 to 1976.

According to Brewer, the FBI provided “us with specialized arms, armor piercing ammunition and intelligence information about AIM.” Confirming this, an FBI memorandum from Inspector [name deleted] to H.N. Basett reported:

“There are pockets of Indian population which consist almost exclusively of American Indian Movement members and their supporters on the reservation. It is significant that in some of these AIM centers the residents have built bunkers which would literally require military assault if it were necessary to overcome resistance emanating from the bunkers.”

One area referenced by the memorandum was “Oglala.” According to the interview with Goon leader Brewer, the Goon Squad also planned to assault the AIM people at the Jumping Bull homes.

There is an awakening in this country regarding the government’s role in both the FBI’s activities in Indian country and in Peltier’s prosecution. A new trial would mean freedom for Leonard Peltier.

September-October 1991, ATC 34