Leonard Peltier is
a federal prisoner serving two consecutive life sentences at the
United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas, in connection with
the 1975 deaths of two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Despite an almost
perfect prison record since 1979, Peltier has now been incarcerated
for over 320 months (over 11 years beyond the normal time as
established by the U.S. Parole Commission's own regulations) in
connection with these offenses. This is significantly longer than the
time at which a prisoner with a good record would normally have been
granted parole under the regulations existing both at the time of the
offense and the current regulation issued by the Commission.
Nevertheless, the Commission has repeatedly stated that it will not
even consider Mr. Peltier's release on parole until December 2008, at
which time Leonard will have served almost double the normal time.
trial, based on documents obtained from the FBI under Freedom of
Information Act requests, Leonard's legal team discovered that the
government had withheld exculpatory evidence, including critical
ballistics data. Specifically, the legal team discovered a memorandum
by a ballistics expert dated October 2, 1975, that unequivocally
ruled out the "Wichita" AR-15 (which was purportedly used
by Leonard Peltier on June 26, 1975) as the murder weapon. The
improperly withheld evidence suppressed by the FBI struck at the
heart of the government's case and the later Parole Commission
findings which were upheld by the U.S. District Court in Kansas.
One of the most
telling factors in Leonard's case is the government's changing
position as the case has evolved and as further evidence of
government misconduct has been unearthed.
In 1985, during
oral arguments before the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on
Leonard's first habeas petition, the government argued that it did
not need to prove that Leonard executed the agents at close range and
admitted that "... we can't prove who shot those agents."
In 1990, Leonard brought a second habeas petition and the government
again stressed that Leonard's conviction did not rest on his
participating in the close range execution of the agents: "We
knew who participated, we knew who was murdered, but we did not know
quote-unquote who shot the agents. The facts available did not give
us direct evidence as to who did the coup-de-grace. They simply
didn't ... We argued inferences and we certainly argued that
strongly. But that's not the same thing as saying that we had direct
evidence by any one witness that Peltier was the one that squeezed
off the final rounds."
Thus, as the
evidence linking Leonard to shooting the agents began to evaporate,
and as it became more and more clear that the evidence relied upon by
the government was manufactured after the fact, the government
changed its approach from claiming that Leonard had been the shooter
to upholding Leonard's convictions on the theory of aiding and abetting.