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Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier denied parole for 1975 killings of 2 FBI agents

American Indian activist Leonard Peltier speaks during an interview at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., on April 29, 1999. Peltier, who has spent most of his life in prison for the 1975 killings of two FBI agents in South Dakota, was denied parole this week.
Joe Ledford/The Kansas City Star
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AP
American Indian activist Leonard Peltier speaks during an interview at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., on April 29, 1999. Peltier, who has spent most of his life in prison for the 1975 killings of two FBI agents in South Dakota, was denied parole this week.

Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier, who has spent most of his life in prison since his conviction in the 1975 killings of two FBI agents in South Dakota, has been denied parole.

The U.S. Parole Commission said in a statement Tuesday announcing the decision that he won't be eligible for another parole hearing until June 2026. Peltier is serving life in prison for the killing the agents during a standoff on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was convicted in 1977.

His attorney, Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge, vowed to appeal. He had argued that Peltier was wrongly convicted and that the health of the 79-year-old was failing.

"This decision is a missed opportunity for the United States to finally recognize the misconduct of the FBI and send a message to Indian Country regarding the impacts of the federal government's actions and policies of the 1970s," he said in a statement.

The fight for Peltier's freedom is embroiled in the Indigenous rights movements. Nearly half a century later, his name remains a rallying cry and "Free Peltier" T-shirts are hawked online.

"The way they have treated Leonard is the way they have treated Indigenous people historically throughout this country," said Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy group. "That is why Indigenous people and oppressed people everywhere see a little bit of ourselves in Leonard Peltier. Although today is a sad day, we are not going to stop fighting."

The FBI and its current and former agents dispute the claims of innocence.

An unidentified FBI agent, one of nearly 500 current and retired FBI agents who protested clemency for Leonard Peltier on Dec. 15, 2000, marches toward the White House holding an image of two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, who were killed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.
Hillery Smith Garrison / AP
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AP
An unidentified FBI agent, one of nearly 500 current and retired FBI agents who protested clemency for Leonard Peltier on Dec. 15, 2000, marches toward the White House holding an image of two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, who were killed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.

"They were down, they were wounded, they were helpless and he shot them point blank," said Mike Clark, president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. "It is a heinous crime."

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement that "justice continues to prevail." And Natalie Bara, president of the FBI Agents Association, described Peltier in a statement as an "unremorseful murderer."

"We believe this decision upholds justice for our fallen colleagues and their families," the statement said.

An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, Peltier was active in the American Indian Movement, which began in the 1960s as a local organization in Minneapolis that grappled with issues of police brutality and discrimination against Native Americans. It quickly became a national force.

Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, credits AIM and others for most of the rights Native Americans have today, including religious freedom and the ability to operate casinos and tribal colleges and enter into contracts with the federal government to oversee schools and other services.

AIM grabbed headlines in 1973 when it took over the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation, leading to a 71-day standoff with federal agents. Tensions between AIM and the government remained high for years.

FBI agents and an activist were killed in the Pine Ridge standoff

On June 26, 1975, agents came to Pine Ridge to serve arrest warrants amid battles over Native treaty rights and self-determination.

After being injured in a shootout, agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were shot in the head at close range, Wray said. Also killed in the shootout was AIM member Joseph Stuntz. The Justice Department concluded that a law enforcement sniper killed Stuntz.

Two other AIM members, Robert Robideau and Dino Butler, were acquitted of killing Coler and Williams.

After fleeing to Canada and being extradited to the United States, Peltier was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced in 1977 to life in prison, despite defense claims that evidence against him had been falsified.

Amnesty International has been among his backers, writing in a statement that keeping him locked up is a "human rights tragedy."

His latest parole hearing was in June at a high-security lockup in Florida that is part of the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman. Afterward, his attorney, Sharp, said the commission was obligated legally to "look forward," focusing on issues such as whether he is likely to commit another crime if he is released.

Relatives of the slain FBI agents argue for Peltier to remain imprisoned

Relatives of the two agents have long argued that Peltier should remain behind bars. In a 2022 letter to Wray, Coler's son Ronald Coler said the campaign for Peltier's release has been painful for the family.

"Not only has my family suffered the loss of my father, but we have also been forced to endure the insult that Peltier has become a favorite cause and figurehead championed by Hollywood, the music industry, politicians and well-intentioned activists who assume or believe he is being punished unfairly," he wrote. "Peltier allows himself to be celebrated thus. He knows his guilt."

Parole also was rejected at a hearing in 2009, and then-President Obama denied a clemency request in 2017. Another clemency request is pending before President Biden.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]