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4 May 2006 Edition

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Leonard Peltier: Over 30 years in jail

Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier

Justice denied

Native American Leonard Peltier has languished in prison for three decades for an offence which even US courts have said he was wrongly convicted. Here GERI TIMMONS tells the story of how Peltier has been persecuted for defending his land and people.

On a humid summer morning on 26 June 1975, on the Jumping Bull's ranch, a young group of women were busy preparing food for the children and men. Some were sleeping, others were moving around the camp doing light chores. The night before there had been a thunderstorm and it caused some disruption of the tents, so many were up all night re-establishing camp. Leonard Peltier lay in his tent listening to the sounds of children playing and women chatting as they cooked the morning breakfast. In the distance he heard gunfire but brushed it off thinking it was probably hunters. But the sounds grew closer and he realized that they were under attack.

Peltier rushed from his tent, snatched up his rifle and ran vigorously to the little green house and realized that Grandma and Grandpa Jumping Bull had gone to Rapid City for the day. Past the house, he saw Joe "Killsright" Stuntz lying dead on the ground shot between the eyes.

He headed back across the field, he heard the children crying and saw a shining new car speeding onto the property, still shooting at three young natives in a red pick up. He followed in pursuit of the others and returned the fire in self-defence.

As Peltier headed down the hill, he encountered Bob Robideau and Dino Butler coming up. They returned to camp. Once the dust had cleared the group realised that the two in the shiny car were in fact FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack R. Coler, at that moment the world stood still. All knew they would be hunted down and murdered by law enforcement in retaliation for this. They would never be able to explain that it was self-defence. Everyone gathered together to say a short prayer to the Great Spirit asking for protection, for Joe's journey into the spirit world and for the two dead agents, as the FBI and the Tribal Police surrounded the property.


The violence that surrounded the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation did not start on this day. It was part of a history of corruption and murder for years. Dick Wilson, then tribal chairman and his paid assassins, the Goons (their self proclaimed name), wanted to assimilate the people into the world of capitalism and making themselves rich, by selling tribal land to the US Government. The Government wanted to strip the land of its uranium deposits; the traditionalist natives were strongly opposed.

On 27 February 1973, a group called the American Indian Movement (AIM), seized control of Wounded Knee. The occupation was in protest at Dick Wilson's sanctioned government. Two people were killed during the 71-day occupation, 12 were wounded, including two marshals, and approximately 1,200 were arrested. AIM placed the issues of Native American rights under an international spotlight.

The murder rate however grew. Dick Wilson's goons with the help of the FBI, created a reign of terror on the traditionalists that resided on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the American Indian Movement. There were over 60 unsolved murders, with Pine Ridge rating the highest murder rate per capita in the nation; the police agencies did not seem interested in solving them.

The largest manhunt in the history of the United States was engaged against members of the American Indian Movement. Leonard Peltier was labeled public enemy number one, with the accompanying order to shoot on sight. Even though the FBI stated that there were over 40 natives involved in the shoot out, only Bob Robideau, Dino Butler and Leonard Peltier were held for trial after capture.

Leonard Peltier fled to Canada. Meanwhile Dino Butler and Bob Robideau were arrested at different locations and stood trial while Leonard fought extradition. Robideau and Butler were found not guilty by reason of self-defence. This infuriated the FBI and they swore the next trial would be different.


Under extreme duress at the hands of the FBI a mentally ill native woman gave three inconsistent affidavits stating she was at the Jumping Bull ranch, also was the girlfriend of Peltier and she saw him shoot the two agents. She has since recanted, stating the FBI forced her into making the statements. The damage however had already been done; Peltier was now in the United States. The Canadian government upon learning the truth behind these false affidavits demanded the return of Peltier. These demands fell on deaf ears.

A ballistics expert at Peltier's trial said he had a clear match for the weapon that shot the agents. This stemmed from a shell casing found at the crime scene. Later, through the release of documents it was learned that the expert lied and fabricated the evidence to ensure a conviction. The federal court verbally reprimanded him for professional misconduct. US Marshals sequestered the jury, implying the American Indian Movement was trying to harm them. Periodic sweeps were done in the courtroom and the judge's chambers, once again to give the impression of implied threat. On 18 April 1977, after six hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. On June 1, 1977, Judge Paul Benson sentenced Peltier to two consecutive life sentences for the deaths of FBI agents Williams and Coler.

Leonard Peltier has continuously denied the murder of the two FBI agents. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Peltier might have been acquitted had the FBI not withheld valuable evidence. A new trial however was denied due to a legal technicality. Judge Heaney, presiding over the appellant hearing, has expressed his support for Peltier's release.

The 10th Circuit Court stated: "Much of the government conduct on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and in the prosecution of Mr. Peltier is to be condemned. The government withheld evidence. It coerced witnesses. These facts are undisputed. But [this] is a question we have no authority to review."

Barry Bachrach, Peltier's lead counsel has asked "If the Judicial Branch has no authority to review outrageous government conduct, then, who does? If the Judicial Branch continues to acknowledge that Mr. Peltier's due process rights were violated, but claims it has no authority to rectify it, then who does?"

Widespread support

Amnesty International has declared Peltier a political prisoner and demanded his release. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and countless other luminaries have expressed their support for Peltier publicly.

US Prosecutor Lynn Crooks has clearly admitted: "We can't prove who shot those agents". Peltier is still held in captivity within the prison system. On 12 September, 2005, Leonard Peltier saw his 61st birthday pass behind the rolling wire and 20 foot high walls at Lewisburg Federal Prison. He has been incarcerated over 30 years for defending his people and his land. The government is relentless in their continued effort to keep him locked away like a caged animal. It has been proven the FBI lied, fabricated the evidence and coerced the witnesses. When will they be held accountable for their past transgressions. The native community awaits the day that this country recognizes the great wrong this government has done. We are asking for all people to unite in solidarity, joining our campaign for freedom, it is time for Leonard Peltier to come home!

• For more information please visit the web site at or write [email protected]

Show your solidarity by writing to Leonard Peltier:

Leonard Peltier # 89637-132



8.30pm Thursday 11 May

Teachers' Club, Parnell Square, Dublin 1

7.30pm Friday 12 May

St Mary's College, Falls Road, Belfast. (Followed by gig at the Broadway Bar)

4pm Saturday 13 May

Sandino's Bar, Water St., Derry. Organised by Pat Finucane Centre

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the first edition of 2019 published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of An Chéad Dáil and Soloheadbeg.
  • In this edition Gerry Adams sets out the case for active abstentionism, Mícheál Mac Donncha takes us back to January 21st 1919, that fateful day after which here was no going back and Aengus Ó Snodaigh gives an account of the IRA attack carried out on the same day of the First Dáil, something that was to have a profound effect on the course of Irish history.
  • There are also articles about the aftermath of the 8th amendment campaign, the Rise of the Right and the civil rights movement.

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