Facts of the Case
This article is meant to provide an overview of the Peltier case. This intricate case grows more complicated with each passing year as court challenges continue so as to win Leonard’s freedom. All of the information below is from the site AIM for Freedom for Leonard Peltier.
June 26, 1975
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.
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 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.
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 Wounded Knee II.
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.
Myrtle Poor Bear
Mr. Leonard Peltier was arrested in Canada on February 6,1976. He was extradited from Canada in December on the basis of an affidavit signed by Myrtle Poor Bear, a Native American woman known to have serious mental health problems.
Poor Bear claimed to have been Leonard Peltier’s girlfriend at the time of the shootings, and to have been present during the shoot-out and witnessed the killings.
Affidavit 1. Here, Special Agents David Price and William Wood have 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. Note that there is 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. With this affidavit, Price and Wood have Poor Bear present herself as being Peltier’s “girl friend,” and as overhearing planning for an ambush. However, with this affidavit, Poor Bear is now 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. Also note how the method of killing corresponds to the FBI’s contrived “execution” scenario.
Affidavit 3. 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.” Note also the absence of any alleged confession on the part of Leonard Peltier.
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 (see 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 Mr. 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.
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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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.
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…”
Mr. 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…”
Among the exculpatory evidence withheld by the FBI during the trial of Leonard Peltier, a teletype dated October 2, 1975, shows that Bureau tests conclusively determined that the rifle attributed to the defendant had not fired the cartridge casing allegedly recovered from the trunk of Special Agent Coler’s car. FBI firearms expert Evan Hodge testified to the opposite at trial.
FBI lab notes detailing a firing pin test performed with the “Wichita AR-15” also show that the weapon did not match the crucial casing recovered at the scene. At trial, Evan Hodge testified that the test was “inconclusive.”
During the Peltier trial, the FBI produced approximately 3,500 documents and claimed that these were all the documents in existence. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Peltier attorneys discovered that some 12,000 documents had been withheld. Six thousand documents were then released. More recently, despite the FBI’s claim that only 6,000 full documents related to this case remain undisclosed—and that these are merely “administrative” documents, of no use to the defense team—Mr. Peltier’s attorneys have discovered that the government continues to withhold tens of thousands of documents concerning Mr. Peltier’s case.
In recent years, Mr. Peltier’s attorneys have filed FOIA requests with FBI Headquarters and various FBI field offices in an attempt to secure the release of these additional documents concerning Mr. Peltier. Similar FOIA requests also have been submitted to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Although the FBI has engaged in a number of dilatory tactics to avoid the processing of these requests—claiming “national security” or “ongoing investigation” reasons—thousands of FOIA documents were released in 2002-2005. But not nearly enough of them. Based on the critical nature of those documents that have been disclosed over the years, such as the results of ballistics tests, it is reasonable to conclude that the remaining files would contain evidence that may help to establish Mr. Peltier’s innocence. Three decades after the shootings, there is clearly no current reason to fear national security risks or the disruption of ongoing investigations.
As compared to similar cases, Mr. Peltier has served a significantly longer period of imprisonment than is normal before a grant of parole is made. Yet, the U.S. Parole Commission has made it clear that parole will not even be considered until the year 2008, when Mr. Peltier will have served twice the normal time in prison according to the Commission’s own congressionally mandated guidelines.
No adequate reason has been given for such arbitrary and discriminatory treatment. Instead, the Parole Commission stated at one hearing that the denial of parole was based upon Mr. Peltier’s participation in the “premeditated and cold blooded execution of these two officers.” Yet, as noted, there is no evidence that Mr. Peltier ever fired the fatal shots. This has been admitted by the government attorneys themselves.
In addition, various FBI agents and U.S. Attorney Crooks have been present during parole hearings to personally oppose Mr. Peltier’s release.
More recently, it also has been made clear that Mr. Peltier will not receive parole until he “recognizes his crime” or, in short, confesses to a crime he did not commit.
Enough is Enough
Clearly the deaths of Mr. Stuntz and the two FBI agents represent a tragedy for all three men and their families. However, it is equally clear that the unfair trial and decades-long imprisonment of an innocent man is also tragic.
Also consider that from the time of Peltier’s conviction in 1977 until the mid-1990s—according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice—the average length of imprisonment served for homicide in the United States ranged from 94 to 99.8 months (about 8 years). Even if you were to take Peltier’s two consecutive life sentences into account at the higher end of this range, it is clear that Peltier should have been released over a decade ago. On that basis alone—according to the due process and equal rights protections of the U.S. Constitution—Leonard Peltier should immediately be released.
As has been said:
“…While Leonard Peltier is in prison, we all are… Leonard Peltier has committed no crime whatsoever… If he had been guilty of firing a gun that killed a FBI Agent, it was in defense of not just his people but the integrity of humanity from domination and exploitation… [Government officials are keeping Peltier behind bars] because they have staked their reputation on it… Peltier should never have been sent to prison in the first place. Until Leonard Peltier’s rights are respected, there can be no peace in our hearts and our minds… It is imperative that we, you and I, secure the freedom of Leonard Peltier.” (Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to the Native American Journalists Association, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2000.)