A Travesty of Justice: Why Peltier Remains in Prison

Jack Breseé

Amnesty International considers Leonard Peltier to be a political prisoner whose avenues of redress have long been exhausted . . . Amnesty International recognizes that a retrial is no longer a feasible option and believes Leonard Peltier should be immediately and unconditionally released.” —Amnesty International, April 1999

“IT’S 1999. WHY is Leonard Peltier still in prison?”

These words were on the huge banner behind the speakers’ table for last summer’s gathering of forces at Haskell Indian Nations College & Institute at Lawrence, Kansas.

Peltier, now 55, is the Native American activist, spiritual leader and revolutionary who has been imprisoned for 24 years for the June 26, 1975 killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation. The government itself has admitted for many years it does not know who killed the men.

The background and facts and of this legal travesty are known worldwide—yet no justice is done. Peltier now suffers from a severely painful jaw condition, made worse by botched treatment, making it impossible for him to eat properly.

It is now February 2000, and Leonard remains in prison. But to ask “why?” would be rhetorical: Leonard Peltier is still in prison because he is a “scapegoat” and because he is unwilling to grovel and act the repentant and humble “Good Little Indian.”

It must also be said that too many supporters and advocates have failed to understand the depths of racism and ruthless cynicism that permeates the United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and elected officials whose ostensible responsibility is to dispense justice promptly and honestly.

Leonard’s health is poor and getting worse, and finally his infirm condition and the Bureau’s neglect is receiving worldwide attention. The latter fact is encouraging for him, as well as for the hundreds—maybe thousands?—of Federal prisoners who have been victims of medical malpractice, which approaches the diabolic, at the U.S. Medical Center in this writer’s hometown of Springfield, Missouri.

I am not repeating hearsay. I have been behind the walls on Prison Ministry for Catholic Inmates (and others) several times. Members of my family have taught evening classes and competed in intra-community sports events there. And it is general knowledge that “medical treatment” at the facility is frequently abhorrent, with routine surgery often so disastrous that one musk ask if these are medical procedures or institutional torture and mutilation.

A Challenge to Us All

Many of us who support Leonard’s cause have failed to recognize the Beast we’re up against! Example: Regarding the FBI’s use of falsified testimony, “I have nothing on my conscience at all”—U.S. Prosecutor Lynn Crooks (is the last name a coincidence?).

Do these people have no shame? Not when their “greater good” is at stake. If we aren’t disgusted with those who utter such obscenities, then we should be disgusted with ourselves—not only for Leonard and his case, but for all political prisoners . .. and even for ourselves.

Likewise with the vile record of medical blunders and indifference to Leonard’s life-threatening physical problems. That any individual in a Federal government facility at the beginning of the 21st century can be so abused and neglected shames us as a nation.

Do we simply rationalize it away? Maybe we view it the same way we view auto accidents and fatal diseases: It’ll never happen to us. Or is it more “out of sight, out of mind?”

But Edmund Burke, ironically a conservative 18th century British philosopher, warned us that “All that is required for evil to succeed is for good men (and women—JB) to do nothing.” That much hasn’t changed in two hundred years.

The government and the criminal “justice” system are the villains that Leonard, those of us who work for justice in his case, and many others know. Some “friends,” on the other hand, are guilty of errors by commission or omission whose motives are difficult to understand.

There are supporters who speak of noble ideas, and who must be gaining some level of gratification by being a bit involved. Some of the other friends and supporters seem to have forgotten his plight completely.

Some of the very people from the American Indian Movement (AIM) who agitated for and initiated the takeover and standoff at Wounded Knee (1973), have achieved personal and financial success as what some of us call Actors in Moccasins; others have gone so far as to join the forces against Leonard.

Prayer, fasting, Harmonic Convergence, “Sweats” and other passive, non-interventionist tactics devoid of meaningful action have proven to be of extremely limited use. (I personally feel the same about mail by form-letter and phone calls by script; it may feel good but our enemies know public outrage doesn’t last.)

Even Gandhi admitted he would have employed more militant and aggressive tactics had he been faced with a different enemy in a different place. One should not confuse spiritual self- improvement with a true commitment to struggle.

Some substantial strategies and tactics that do show promise are being utilized at present. A habeas corpus petition has been filed for the first time, challenging the U.S. Parole Commission’s denial that Leonard’s rights—at many levels of the system—were violated.

This petition was filed June 4, 1999 in Federal District Court at Topeka, KS by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Attorneys Carl Nadler and Lawrence Schilling. It establishes that the Commission ignores its own guidelines and would put his release hearing seventeen years past the Commission’s own norm—and six years after the date Congress has set for the Commission to expire!

In Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and some former public officials are publicizing the fact that the FBI blatantly lied to secure Leonard Peltier’s extradition from Canada, where he had fled.

Amnesty International has weighed in on Leonard’s side—and AI does have some clout. Executive clemency is considered a hope by some, though many think it remote in this election year with Clinton so solidly backing Gore. (Maybe next year, if Leonard lives that long?)

There are other ideas, but the question remains: To find which ones will work at getting Leonard out of prison.

ATC 85, March-April 2000