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What to know about Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier’s first hearing in more than a decade

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A parole hearing was held Monday for Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier, who has spent most of his life in prison since his conviction in the 1975 killings of two FBI agents in South Dakota.

At 79, Peltier’s health is failing, and if this parole request is denied, it might be a decade or more before it is considered again, said his attorney Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge. Sharp and other supporters have long argued that Peltier was wrongly convicted and say now that this effort may be his last chance at freedom.

It’s been about 15 years since Peltier’s last parole hearing. A decision on Monday’s hearing is expected within 21 days.

“This whole entire hearing is a battle for his life,” said Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy group. “It’s time for him to come home.”

The FBI and its current and former agents dispute the claims of innocence. The fight for Peltier’s freedom, which is embroiled in the Indigenous rights movements, remains so robust nearly half a century later that “Free Peltier” T-shirts and caps are still hawked online.

“It may be kind of cultish to take his side as some kind of a hero. But he’s certainly not that; he’s a cold blooded murderer,” said Mike Clark, president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, which wrote a letter arguing that Peltier should remain incarcerated.

Here are some things to know about the case.

What happened in the ’70s?

An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, Peltier was active in the American Indian Movement, which began in the 1960s as a local organization in Minneapolis that grappled with issues of police brutality and discrimination against Native Americans. It quickly became a national force.

AIM grabbed headlines in 1973 when it took over the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation, leading to a 71-day standoff with federal agents. Tensions between AIM and the government remained high for years.

The FBI considered AIM an extremist organization and planted spies and snitches in the group. Sharp blamed the government for creating what he described as a “powder keg” that exploded on June 26, 1975.

That’s the day agents came to Pine Ridge to serve arrest warrants amid ongoing battles over Native treaty rights and self-determination.

After being injured in a shootout, agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were shot in the head at close range, according to a letter from FBI Director Christopher Wray. Also killed in the shootout was AIM member Joseph Stuntz. The Justice Department concluded that a law enforcement sniper killed Stuntz.

Two other AIM members, Robert Robideau and Dino Butler, were acquitted of killing Coler and Williams.

After fleeing to Canada and being extradited to the United States, Peltier was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced in 1977 to life in prison, despite defense claims that evidence against him had been falsified.

“You’ve got a conviction that was riddled with misconduct by the prosecutors, the U.S. Attorney’s office, by the FBI who investigated this case and, frankly the jury,” Sharp said. “If they tried this today, he does not get convicted.”

How has the FBI responded?

Wray said in a statement that the agency was resolute in its opposition to Peltier’s latest application for parole.

“We must never forget or put aside that Peltier intentionally murdered these two young men and has never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions,” he wrote, adding that the case has been repeatedly upheld on appeal.

The FBI Agents Association, a professional group that represents mostly active agents, sent a letter to the parole commission opposing parole. The group said any early release of Peltier would be a “cruel act of betrayal.”

What is the legacy of the American Indian Movement?

Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, credits AIM and others for most of the rights Native Americans have today, including religious freedom, the ability to operate casinos and tribal colleges, and enter into contracts with the federal government to oversee schools and other services.

“Leonard has been a part of creating that, but he hasn’t been available to be a beneficiary because he has been incarcerated for almost 50 years,” Tilsen said. “So he hasn’t been able to enjoy the result of those wins and see how they have changed and transformed Indian country.”

What’s next?

Monday’s hearing was held at a high-security lockup in Florida that is part of the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman. The hearing was not open to the public and details about what happened were not immediately available.

Sharp, Peltier’s attorney, said beforehand that witnesses for and against parole were expected to testify. Family members of the two FBI agents who were killed will be there. For decades, the agents’ loved ones have opposed clemency for Peltier.

In a 2022 letter to Wray, Coler’s son Paul Coler, who was less than 2 years old when his father died, said he was “left to witness the continuous struggle and suffering my Mother had to endure after losing her husband. She was alone, dealing with the biggest tragedy of her life, all while trying to navigate her two young sons through life.”

The decision on whether to grant parole is required within 21 days, Sharp said. If parole is granted, there’s a process for release which shouldn’t take long. If denied, Peltier can look at his options for filing an appeal to a federal district court, Sharp said.

Parole was rejected at Peltier’s last hearing in 2009, and then-President Barack Obama denied a clemency request in 2017. Another clemency request is pending before President Joe Biden.

By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH and JACK DURA
Associated Press

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