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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
attorney and university instructor in the United States
* Reprinted with permission.
Book Online: "The
COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against
Domestic Dissent," by Ward Churchill, James Vander Wall
The Untold American Story
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.
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.