Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first degree murder in the shooting of two FBI agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge indian Reservation.
Peltier's indictment and conviction have been the subject of much controversy; Amnesty International placed his case under the "Unfair Trials" category of its Annual Report: USA 2010.
On June 26, 1975, two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—Mr. Jack Coler and Mr. Ron Williams—entered private property on the Pine Ridge reservation, the Jumping Bull Ranch. They drove unmarked vehicles, wore plain clothes, and neglected to identify themselves as law enforcement officers. They allegedly sought to arrest a young Indian man, Jimmy Eagle, for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. They believed, the government contends, that they had seen Eagle in a red pick up truck that they then followed onto the Jumping Bull property. Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) were camping on the property at the time. They had been invited there by the Jumping Bull elders, who sought protection from the extreme violence on the reservation at that time. Many non-AIM persons were present as well.
Map of the Jumping Bull Property
For unknown reasons, a shoot-out began. A family with small children was trapped in the cross fire. Throughout the ranch, people screamed that they were under attack and many of the men present hurried to return fire.
When the skirmish ended, the two FBI agents were dead. The U.S. government claims they had been wounded and then shot through their heads at close range.
A young Native American named Joe Stuntz (above) also lay dead, shot through the head by a sniper bullet. His killing has never been investigated. The more than 30 men, women, and children present on the ranch were then quickly surrounded by over 150 FBI agents, Special Weapons and Tactics (or SWAT) team members, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and local vigilantes. They barely escaped through a hail of bullets.
The FBI immediately began its investigation into the shoot-out, the so-called RESMURS investigation, and launched the biggest manhunt of its history.
Angry agents shot up the Jumping Bull home, leaving bullet riddled family portraits in their wake. In the days following the shoot-out, FBI agents in SWAT gear and carrying assault rifles also terrorized other Pine Ridge residents through a series of warrantless no-knock assaults on their homes.
Continuing with its long tradition of manipulating the media—placing articles in the popular press that put the Bureau in a positive light and interfering in the publication of “dissident” writings by persons such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.—the FBI immediately set about disseminating gross inaccuracies about this case. Agents Coler and Williams, the FBI claimed, had been murdered in “a cold-blooded ambush” by a large force of trained guerillas in “sophisticated bunkers” and “fortifications,” but not before Williams had first pleaded for their lives for the sake of Coler’s wife and children. How the Bureau developed this information about Williams’ last words in the absence of anyone who could have heard them was unclear. Other reports indicated that the agents’ bodies had been “riddled with bullets.” Then FBI director Clarence Kelley was forced to retract these statements when reporters—who had been barred from the Jumping Bull property for two days following the shoot-out—began to discover the truth.*
The FBI very quickly focused its investigation on prominent AIM members known to be present during the shoot-out—Leonard Peltier, in particular. The investigation became a race to develop a case against him.
Investigators imposed their desires on the evidence, taking bits and pieces and fashioning them in such a way so as to support their case. In short order, indictments were issued against Leonard Peltier, as well as his two friends and colleagues Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, who also had been present throughout the incident. Charges against a fourth man, Jimmy Eagle (a non-AIM member), were later dropped. (Prosecutors admitted during Peltier’s trial that Jimmy Eagle had not even been on the reservation on the day of the shoot-out. However, FBI documents later revealed that the government decided to dismiss charges against Eagle so that “the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier.”).
Despite the presence of so many other individuals on the Jumping Bull property during the shoot-out, no other individuals were given any serious scrutiny during the RESMURS investigation—even those who claimed participation in the shoot-out and bragged about being responsible for the agents’ deaths. No other persons were charged for the shooting deaths of the FBI agents.
The Butler-Robideau Trial
Darrelle “Dino” Butler and Bob Robideau stood trial separately from Leonard Peltier who, convinced he would never receive a fair trial in the United States, had fled to Canada.
The defense team succeeded in getting the trial moved from racist South Dakota to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cedar Rapids was, however, a predominantly white city and concerns remained as to the likelihood of Butler and Robideau receiving a fair trial.
Immediately, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began setting the stage for the defendants’ convictions. Agents warned local police that carloads of American Indian Movement (AIM) “terrorists” were descending on the town. On May 11,1976, U.S. marshals visited every office in the Federal Building (where the trial was to be held), telling folks to prepare for shooting incidents and the seizure of hostages and advising them that marshals on the roof would be on the lookout for marauding Indians.
Elsewhere, rumors about alleged renegade activity ran rampant. A report allegedly emanating from Connecticut police intelligence, for example, stated that a “terrorist” group affiliated with AIM had hatched a plan “to kill a cop a day.” The report failed to mention that the organization referenced was defunct.
On June 22, the FBI released a teletype that was distributed to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. It claimed that 2,000 AIM “Dog Soldiers” trained in “the Northwest Territory” would fan out across South Dakota and would kidnap, bomb, burn, snipe… all to disrupt the Bicentennial Celebration.
When the 2,000 “Dog Soldiers” didn’t show up in South Dakota and the rest of the FBI’s scare campaign was shown to be a lie, the Cedar Rapids community began to look at AIM members, who had peaceably assembled there for the trial, with a fresh eye and view the government’s machinations with skepticism.
Presided over by Judge Edward McManus, the trial commenced on June 7, 1976.
The defendants admitted that they were present at the shoot-out and had exchanged fire with the FBI agents in the course of defending their women and children.
In a search for the truth, Judge McManus allowed a broad range of evidence to be heard, often over the vigorous objections of the prosecutor. This allowed the jury to receive a full explanation of how the shoot-out had occurred and why the Native defendants reacted as they did.
Testimony was heard about the Pine Ridge “Reign of Terror” and from the director of the FBI himself, Clarence Kelley, on the Bureau’s counterintelligence activities and tactics. Testimony prompted by the defense attorneys also brought forward a pattern of FBI misconduct in other prosecutions of AIM members, specifically those occurring after the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
During the trial, a key prosecution witness, Mr. Draper, also admitted that he had been threatened by the FBI and as a result had changed his testimony based on agents’ instructions, so as to support the government’s position. Another prosecution witness also was shown to have lied on the witness stand.
Clearly, the evidence heard at trial was sufficient to convince the jury of the defendants’ claims. Further, the government’s behavior before and during the trail severely damaged its credibility. In July, the jurors found that there was no evidence to link Butler and Robideau to the fatal shots. Moreover, the exchange of gun fire from a distance was deemed an act of self-defense.
Mr. Leonard Peltier was arrested in Canada on February 6,1976. He was extradited from Canada in December of the same year on the basis of a false affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, a Native American woman known to have serious mental health problems.
In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) produced more than one false affidavit.
Affidavit 1, dated February 19, 1976. Here, Special Agents David Price and William Wood had Myrtle Poor Bear recount how it was she who overheard the planning of the Northwest AIM group to lure Special Agents Coler and Williams to their deaths in an ambush. There was no claim Poor Bear witnessed the shoot-out, but that she heard Leonard Peltier order the agents killed beforehand, and that he later “confessed to her.”
Affidavit 2, dated February 23, 1976. With this affidavit, Price and Wood had Poor Bear present herself as being Peltier’s “girl friend,” and as overhearing planning for an ambush. However, with this affidavit, Poor Bear was presented as having witnessed Peltier killing the agents. Details on an escape route apparently were designed to explain away the Bureau’s embarrassing inability to apprehend suspects at the scene of the shoot-out. The method of killing coincidentally corresponded to the FBI’s contrived “execution” scenario.
Affidavit 3, dated March 31, 1976 . This affidavit was eventually submitted to the Canadian courts. Here, the agents totally abandoned the notion of Poor Bear’s having overheard planning for an ambush. Instead they have her provide considerable detail as an “eyewitness.” Any alleged confession on the part of Leonard Peltier was not included.
Leonard Peltier was extradited from Canada to the United States. Today, the government concedes that, in fact, Myrtle Poor Bear did not know Leonard Peltier, nor was she present at the time of the shooting. She later confessed she had given false statements after being pressured and terrorized by FBI agents. Myrtle Poor Bear sought to testify in this regard at Leonard Peltier’s trial. However, the judge barred her testimony on the grounds of mental incompetence. In addition to being a violation of Leonard Peltier’s rights, the United States government committed fraud on the court during the extradition proceedings and violated the sovereignty of Canada. The U.S. government has made no attempt to correct this wrong and, to date, the illegal extradition has not been corrected by the Canadian Court.
The Peltier Trial
In March 1977, Leonard Peltier stood trial in Fargo, North Dakota. According to the government, the case was originally assigned to the federal district court in Sioux Falls, where Judge Nichol (who had spoken out against government and FBI misconduct during proseutions arising from the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee) would have presided. When Nichol excused himself, the case was assigned to Judge Paul Benson who removed the trial to Fargo.
It should be noted that, in December 1982, attorney William Kunstler discovered in a telephone conversation with Judge Edward McManus (who had presided over the Butler/Robideau trial) that McManus, not Benson, had been scheduled to try the Peltier case. He had been astonished, he said, to find himself arbitrarily removed in favor of Judge Benson. To this day, it is not clear how McManus’ removal was accomplished or by whom specifically. There appears to have been a concerted effort, however, to prevent the involvement of judges in Peltier’s trial who had previously made rulings in favor of defendants in the government’s prosecutions of other members of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as it had done during the Butler/Robideau trial, spread rumors about anticipated “terrorist” attacks by AIM members that built tensions in an already anti-Indian environment.
It was later discovered that the FBI met secretly with Judge Benson prior to trial. There are no notes of these meetings but, not surprisingly, Judge Benson’s subsequent rulings were made almost always in favor of the prosecution.
Documents discovered after the trial also revealed that the FBI had informants in the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee at or about the time of Leonard’s capture (a critical time, i.e., while a defense was being mounted).* The government has refused to divulge the identities of the informants. Infiltration of the defense team would have meant that the prosecution received first-hand information concerning the defense, a clear violation of Leonard’s constitutional rights.
Jury selection, completed in only one day, resulted in an all white jury of ten women and four men, two of whom were alternates. They were sequestered for the duration of the trial. Never in any danger, they nevertheless were made to feel vulnerable to attack. They were transported to the court house in a bus where the windows had been taped over and escorted by Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team members at all times.
The government presented fifteen days of evidence to the jury after which the defense presented six days of evidence. However, due to frequent rulings in the prosecution’s favor, the jury actually heard only two and one-half days of the defense case.
On April 19, 1977, after 11 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.
What became evident much later is that the government committed fraud on the court and violated Leonard’s constitutional right to a fair trial by withholding evidence, presenting false evidence, and intimidating witnesses into committing perjury.
Critical ballistics evidence that reflected Leonard Peltier’s innocence was withheld during his trial. Specifically, the ballistics expert for the FBI, Evan Hodge, testified that he had been unable to perform the best test, a firing pin test, on certain casings found near Agent Coler’s car because the rifle in question had been damaged in a fire. Instead, he stated that he had conducted an extractor mark test and found the casing and weapon to match.
Years later, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showed that, in October 1975, a firing pin ballistics test had indeed been performed on the rifle and that the results were clearly negative. In short, the fatal bullets did not come from the weapon alleged to have been fired by Leonard Peltier. It should also be made very clear that the AR-15 and FBI-issued M-16 deliver the same .223 caliber round. However, the jury never heard about any of these crucial issues.More
On a related matter, SA Fred Coward testified that he was able to see Peltier at the site of the shoot-out, some 700 feet away, using the telescopic lens on his rifle. The defense attorneys duplicated this sighting and found it to be impossible. However, Judge Benson would not allow a test of the claim in court. Coward’s testimony was allowed into evidence and used as a basis to support Peltier’s conviction.
The Pickup Truck
Equally disturbing are the numerous discrepancies regarding the key vehicle in the case. Agents Williams and Coler had radioed that they were chasing a “red pick up truck” which they believed was transporting a suspect. The chase led to the Jumping Bull Ranch and the fatal shoot-out. At trial, however, the evidence had changed to describe a “red and white van,” quite a different vehicle and which, not coincidentally, was more easily linked to Leonard Peltier.
No known witnesses exist as to the actual shooting of FBI Agents Coler and Williams. Three adolescents gave inconclusive and vague testimonies at Peltier’s trial, contradicting their own earlier statements, as well as each other. All three witnesses admitted they had been seriously threatened and intimidated by FBI agents.
The court, at Leonard Peltier’s trial, did not permit the jury to learn of the FBI’s pattern and practice of using false affidavits and intimidating witnesses in recent related cases against other members of the American Indian Movement. The jury was thus unable to properly evaluate the credibility of prosecution witnesses’ testimony.
The Prosecution’s Case
- There was no witness testimony that Leonard Peltier shot the two FBI agents.
- There was no witness testimony that placed Leonard Peltier near the scene before the agents’ deaths occurred. Those witnesses placing Peltier, Robideau, and Butler near the scene after the killing were coerced and intimidated by the FBI.
- There was no forensic evidence as to the exact type of rifle that caused the fatal injuries of the agents. Several different weapons present in the area during the shoot-out— evidence now shows that there were other AR-15 rifles in the area—could have caused the fatal injuries. In addition, the AR-15 rifle claimed to be Leonard Peltier’s weapon was found to be incompatible with the bullet casing allegedly found near Agent Coler’s car (according to the FBI’s documents, by two different agents on two different days). Although other bullets were fired at the crime scene, no other casings or evidence about them were offered by the prosecutor in this case.
In short, there was/is no reasonable evidence that Leonard Peltier committed the crimes for which he was convicted. Instead there is very strong evidence of FBI and prosecutorial misconduct.
Comparison of the Two Trials
By 1977, Leonard Peltier was the only remaining individual the FBI could blame for the deaths of the two agents. The charges against Jimmy Eagle had been dropped—the government stipulated that he was not on the reservation on the day of the firefight. (However, FBI documents later revealed that the government decided to dismiss charges against Eagle so that “the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier.”) Dino Butler and Bob Robideau were acquitted in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July 1976.
The Butler/Robideau trial had uncovered much FBI misconduct, such as tampering with witnesses and evidence, perjury, counterintelligence-type activities and tactics used against AIM, and substantial evidence indicating there was a full scale paramilitary assault on Pine Ridge by the FBI and other law enforcement officials on the day in question. The jury as a result concluded that Butler and Robideau were acting in self-defense.
Peltier’s defense team had this same evidence and more. Yet they would never be be able to present a major portion of it to the jury.
The government clearly was determined to convict Peltier and succeeded. Leonard Peltier was found guilty not because he was guilty, but because crucial aspects of his trial were manipulated to favor the prosecution and, consequently, cause a conviction.
After The Trial
The only evidence against Leonard Peltier was the fact that he was present at the Jumping Bull ranch during the fatal shoot-out. There were more than 30 other individuals there on the day of the shooting—members and nonmembers of the American Indian Movement (AIM)—but only AIM members were prosecuted. Leonard Peltier is the only person who was convicted, sentenced, and imprisoned. And, today, the U.S. Attorney admits that no one knows who fired the fatal shots.
Post-Trial Admissions At the Peltier trial, the prosecutor claimed in summation that “… we proved that he went down to the bodies and executed those two young men at point blank range…” At one appellate hearing, however, the government attorney conceded,
“We had a murder, we had numerous shooters, we do not know who specifically fired what killing shots… we do not know, quote-unquote, who shot the agents.”
At Peltier’s trial the prosecutor, referring to the weapon alleged to have been used in the killings of the agents, stated that, “There is only one AR-15 in the group. There is no testimony concerning any other AR-15 at Tent City or at the crime scene or anywhere else in the area…” Leonard Peltier’s lawyers later filed a Habeas Corpus petition claiming that the government had misled the jury by concealing evidence of the presence of other AR-15 rifles, and thus other potential weapons used in the killings of the agents, at the scene of the incident. The same prosecuting attorney, before the Eighth Circuit Court in 1992, claimed that “… I think it’s simply a misstatement of the trial that there was no evidence presented and it was suppressed as to other AR-15s at the scene…”
In 2009, Leonard had his first and only parole hearing. He was given a 25-year hit, which is rarely if ever given. He then applied for clemency from President Obama in 2017 and was denied.