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Leonard Peltier: America's Political Prisoner

By David R. Hoffman *
July 18, 2003

In America, is there justice for all? In a special editorial written for, David R. Hoffman explains how the American legal system works and does not work.

America's criminal justice system is built upon many myths. Among the most prominent are that justice is blind; that America is a nation of laws, not men; that nobody is above the law; and that political prisoners do not exist in the United States. But such myths are obliterated when one examines the abuses committed under the auspices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) infamous COINTELPRO operation during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Individuals who held "unpopular" political opinions during this era (particularly those seeking social change) were targeted for "neutralization" through a variety of methods.

One tactic was to severely punish activists for relatively minor crimes. This was the fate of Lee Otis Johnson, a Texas Black Panther leader who received a thirty-year prison sentence for allegedly passing a single marijuana "joint" to an undercover police officer. Another technique was to charge activists with unsolved crimes. This was the ordeal of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a California Black Panther leader who was convicted of murder based upon the perjured testimony of an informant. Pratt subsequently served over twenty-five years in prison (the first eight in solitary confinement) before an ex-FBI agent admitted Pratt had been framed. But the most severe strategy was to simply encourage the murders of such activists.

When the FBI discovered a conflict had developed between the Black Panther Party (BPP) and a black nationalist group called United Slaves (US), the Bureau sought, as articulated in a November 1968 memo, to encourage a "vendetta" by sending anonymous threats and disparaging cartoons to the competing organizations. This "vendetta" resulted in the murders of six Black Panthers at the hands of US members. When a similar effort in January 1969 failed to encourage a Chicago street gang to kill Fred Hampton, leader of that city's BPP chapter, Hampton's demise was accomplished through a police raid conducted later that year. Although law enforcement agencies initially described the ensuing events as a "shoot-out" between the police and BPP members, it was ultimately discovered that the Panthers had fired just one of the roughly one hundred shots discharged during the raid. This lone shot had come from the weapon of Mark Clark (who had also been killed) in response to incoming police fire. Not a single shot had been fired from the bedroom where Hampton died, face down upon the bed, from multiple gunshot wounds..

Supporters of the criminal justice system argue that legal remedies are available to those who suffer such abuses. While it is true that Pratt and the estates of Hampton and Clark were ultimately awarded monetary damages, money cannot buy back time or life. Since the purpose of COINTELPRO was to destroy any political organizing or momentum these individuals were building, the prospect of spending a few dollars from the vast resources of the United States Treasury certainly did not deter governmental entities from engaging in or condoning corrupt, and often deadly, techniques to accomplish this task.

This attitude that corruption, crimes or injustices perpetrated by "law enforcement" are excusable has had some abhorrent consequences. A jury in the State of Illinois, for example, had no compunction about acquitting and then celebrating with the police officers and prosecutors who had been on trial for using perjured testimony to send two innocent men to death row. More recently the Supreme Court of the State of Virginia refused to permit posthumous DNA testing of evidence that could exonerate Roger Coleman, who had been executed in 1992. While such denials are normally based on the "logic" that executions make the need for DNA testing "moot," the reality is that the criminal justice system is willing to ignore, and even perpetuate, dishonesty and deceit to maintain another myth--that the death penalty is infallible.

In reality, the Coleman case is an aberration because there actually existed some evidence to test. George W. Bush's campaign boasts about the "infallibility" of the death penalty in Texas, where over one-hundred and fifty people were executed under his "watch" as governor, were premised on the knowledge that Texas destroys evidence after an execution to prevent posthumous DNA testing. Yet Bush's boasts also came despite revelations that some Texas crime labs engaged in "shoddy scientific practices," including the mishandling of evidence, and that some judges were refusing to handle death penalty cases for fear of getting innocent "blood on their hands." Predictably, Bush's purported belief in the "infallibility" of the criminal justice system did not prevent him from issuing an "executive order" to withhold documents requested by Joseph Salvati, a man the FBI allowed to remain imprisoned for thirty years, despite knowledge of his innocence, simply so the Bureau could protect the identity of an informant.

The precedent for tolerating such misconduct was set in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan, who, under the facade of "forgiving those who engaged in excesses [under COINTELPRO]" pardoned two FBI agents who had been convicted of crimes against political activists. Neither ever served a day in prison. Not surprisingly, Reagan's alleged "compassion" did not result in any pardons for COINTELPRO victims, many of whom still remain in prison.

One such victim is Leonard Peltier, a former activist in the American Indian Movement (AIM). Because of its unique nature, AIM incurred COINTELPRO's wrath perhaps more than any other political organization of its day. Native-American ideologies and grievances were those of a colonized people whose traditions, languages and religions were incessantly dismissed and even ridiculed by "mainstream" America. In addition Native-Americans were numerically insufficient to influence statewide or national elections via cohesive voting blocs, and many of them suffered from overwhelming poverty caused by the "termination" policy of the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, which was designed to force Native-Americans to abandon their tribal identities and lands.

AIM also had the misfortune of becoming active just as COINTELPRO was effectively decimating other social movements. The first major Native-American protest came in 1969 when activists occupied Alcatraz Island to demand the United States government honor a treaty that ceded unoccupied federal lands to Native-Americans. After the de facto leader of the Alcatraz protest, Richard Oakes, was slain by a white man (who was only charged with manslaughter and subsequently acquitted), AIM decided to focus on reservations where "traditional" Native-Americans were being exploited or abused by their "pro-government" counterparts. This led to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where AIM was violently opposed by an FBI supported vigilante group known as "Guardians of the Oglala Nation" (GOONS). The result, as described by William F. Muldrow, former director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, was an "unprecedented climate of fear and terror," which ultimately culminated in over sixty unsolved murders.

In 1975 two FBI agents on Pine Ridge were killed in a shoot-out involving AIM members. After two AIM members were acquitted of these killings, only one remained to be tried: Leonard Peltier. Extradited from Canada on a perjured affidavit (the deceptions leading to the war with Iraq were not the first time the United States lied to another country), Peltier faced coerced witnesses and fabricated evidence, while being denied access to evidence that could aid in his defense. Put on trial in a region known to be hostile to Native-Americans, he was convicted and has been imprisoned ever since.

Oftentimes there is a desire for people to discern some "symbolic" meaning in the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system. Forgotten, however, is the very real suffering that such corruption and hypocrisy engenders. America is replete with such symbolism. Sacco and Vanzetti, the two Italian anarchists executed in the 1920s, illustrate the system's irrational contempt for certain cultures and political beliefs; the ordeal of the African-American men collectively known as "the Scottsboro Boys" in 1930s Alabama demonstrates how racism spawns injustice; and the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s serve as a reminder of how easily fear and hysteria can outweigh integrity and reason.

Tragically Leonard Peltier's case embodies all of these influences. In addition, perhaps more than any other case in American history, it exposes the abject cowardice, corruption and hypocrisy that incessantly makes American justice more illusory than real. One court opinion in the Peltier case scathingly condemned the FBI for misconduct on the Pine Ridge Reservation, yet failed to overturn Peltier's conviction. A judge from this court, in a caricature of Pontius Pilate, then attempted to wash his hands of this decision by asking the President to pardon Peltier. A few years after this ruling, Peltier filed another appeal based on the government's admission that it did not know who shot the agents, and on a former GOON member's belated admission that the FBI had provided his group with ammunition and support during their conflict with AIM. The obsession to keep Peltier imprisoned was summarized by the court's terse proclamation: "Peltier gives no explanation . . . for his failure to obtain the evidence earlier." Yet even the most rudimentary logician can see the absurdity of this statement, since it incomprehensibly presumes that Peltier possessed the capability (from a prison cell no less) to make another human being's conscience awaken in a timely manner.

There are undoubtedly some in a self-centered world who will ask, "What does the Leonard Peltier case have to do with me?" The answer is simple. Peltier's case demonstrates that there are agencies in America with the power to corrupt, manipulate or intimidate the legal system, and thus all the erudite law books, treatises and journals simply camouflage the frightening reality that people's futures, fortunes, freedoms and very existence are governed not by law, but by the arbitrariness of a power structure that is largely unaccountable for its actions. Perhaps most disturbingly, the extent of this arbitrariness, under the patronage of the ludicrously named "Patriot Act," is now being enhanced with little more than verbal assurances that past abuses will not be repeated. And considering that Peltier was convicted and remains in prison despite having access to all the alleged "processes" and "protections" of the civilian criminal justice system, one must wonder how many injustices the "military tribunals" of the Bush administration will produce.

The influence of this unelected power structure even extends to the United States legislature, and thus to democracy itself. In recent times Congress has shown no hesitancy about conducting hearings into alleged abuses directed against individuals or groups described as "right-wing," such as the Ruby Ridge case in Idaho or the Branch Davidians in Texas. But similar abuses directed against racial or ethnic minorities do not inspire a similar response. Perhaps the greatest irony of the Peltier case is that it is a crime, as many post-September 11th, 2001 detainees learned, to lie to certain federal agencies. Why then is it not a crime when they lie to us?

David R. Hoffman

An attorney and university instructor in the United States

* Reprinted with permission.

Online Links:

(1) Read Book Online: "The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Domestic Dissent," by Ward Churchill, James Vander Wall


(2) COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story

Compilation by Paul Wolf with contributions from Robert Boyle, Bob Brown, Tom Burghardt, Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver, Bruce Ellison, Cynthia McKinney, Nkechi Taifa, Laura Whitehorn, Nicholas Wilson, and Howard Zinn.

Presented to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa by the members of the Congressional Black Caucus attending the conference: Donna Christianson, John Conyers, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Barbara Lee, Sheila Jackson Lee, Cynthia McKinney, and Diane Watson, September 1, 2001.