I was an agent with the FBI when two of my fellow agents were murdered at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. Today I’m calling on President Obama to free the man convicted of killing them.
I didn’t know Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams personally, but I felt the same shock and horror everyone in the FBI felt at their deaths. Like former United States Attorney James Reynolds, who handled the prosecution in the critical post-trial period, I believe that clemency for Leonard Peltier “is in the best interest of justice.” I further believe that keeping him incarcerated any longer perverts the system of justice for which the two agents died, and which the agency is sworn to uphold.
I do not make this call lightly, and it should not be seen as a criticism of the actions of the well-meaning, patriotic agents of the Bureau, nor as a referendum on the Bureau itself. A benefit of hindsight is that sometimes it provides an opportunity to address an injustice like this.
According to the Eighth Circuit, witnesses were coerced and ballistics evidence was withheld from Peltier's attorneys at trial. U.S. Attorney Reynolds has re-emphasized in recent interviews that the government had no proof to support its trial theory that Peltier was the person who shot the two FBI agents, and he remains in jail today on a thin “accomplice” theory.
Despite the disturbing number of red flags, judicial criticism of government conduct, and his accomplice status, Peltier has been held in prison for more than four decades, four times longer than former FBI Special Agent Mark Putnam, who had an affair with an informant, murdered her when he learned she was pregnant and then obstructed the investigation into her disappearance. Over the course of those four decades, Leonard Peltier has spent no less than six years in solitary confinement; conditions that the world is coming to understand are cruel and inhuman by definition. Is this justice or vengeance?
I am not alone in urging clemency. My opinion is shared by the former U.S. Attorney Reynolds who prosecuted the case; Eighth Circuit Judge Gerald Heaney who sat on two of Peltier’s appeals; leading luminaries of the human rights community such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, the late Coretta Scott King and the late Nelson Mandela; tribal nations from across the country; and more than 112,000 Americans who signed petitions urging the government not to relitigate the case, but to allow closure.
Peltier is 72 years old and reportedly has diabetes, a heart condition, has suffered a stroke, and recently was diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a life-threatening condition that requires diligent medical attention which cannot be provided by the penitentiary where he is housed.
In granting clemency, President Obama will lift a virtual death sentence for Peltier, who is next eligible for parole in 2024.
Finally, although Peltier has consistently maintained his innocence in the killings of agents Coler and Williams, he has also expressed sorrow and remorse over the events that led to their deaths, as well as his concern for their families. Whatever one may think of the violence at the Pine Ridge Reservation, or the circumstances of Peltier’s conviction, he is clearly not a threat to anything or anyone. He simply wants to go home.
Like the vast majority of FBI agents, I joined the agency out of a desire to make the world a better place. I believed then as I believe now in the American values of justice and fairness, but as I look back over the past 41 years, I see neither in the Peltier case.
For all these reasons and more, I respectively urge President Obama to grant the clemency petition of Leonard Peltier, in the name of reconciliation and compassion, and in the interest of the American system of justice for which my two fellow agents died.