Whither the Peltier Pardon?
President William Jefferson Clinton freed more than 200 prisoners and fugitives in his closing weeks in office, but he did not grant clemency to Leonard Peltier. Peltier's supporters still wonder why and who had the last word. Only Clinton knows for sure and he's not talking.
Peltier (Oglala Lakota and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) has been behind bars for 25 of his 57 years. Convicted of killing two FBI agents in the 1975 shoot-out on Oglala land in South Dakota, he is serving two consecutive life sentences in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Denied parole in June 2000, he will not be eligible again until 2008.
The FBI wants Peltier to stay locked up. After the parole board's decision, the FBI's then-director Louis J. Freeh said it was a "testament to the American judicial system and the American people that 25 years have not been able to erase or soften the facts of the case." Freeh said Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams "were grievously wounded and on the ground when the killer approached and shot them, one after the other, at point-blank range, through (their) faces."
Such statements "are untrue and they know they're not true," says Peltier attorney Jennifer K. Harbury. "No one knows who fired the fatal shots and it has been proven that the bullets did not come from Leonard's gun. Then, they say he was there and therefore guilty. But the two other people who were there and accused were acquitted 25 years ago on grounds of self-defense."
Amnesty International calls Peltier a "political prisoner" and says he should be freed. Peltier's supporters say he was wrongly imprisoned on trumped up testimony and manufactured evidence. Writer Peter Matthiessen made just such a case in his 1983 book, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse." His research and the FBI's release of massive amounts of previously undisclosed evidentiary material gave rise to broader interest in the case.
Peltier starting picking up serious support on Capitol Hill in 1980, when his cause was first championed by then-Rep. Don Edwards (D-CA), who chaired the House judiciary panel on civil and constitutional rights and was an ex-FBI agent. Among early congressional supporters of clemency for Peltier were three who later joined the Clinton administration, Reps. Norman Y. Mineta (D-CA), Leon Panetta (D-CA) and Bill Richardson (D-NM).
Two of Peltier's strongest advocates are Sens. Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), who have alternated as chair and vice chair of the Senate's Indian affairs committee for the last five years. They have urged three presidents -- Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton -- to free Peltier.
In the spring of 1996, Inouye asked Clinton for two items on his Indian affairs agenda: an executive order on Indian sacred sites and clemency for Peltier. According to Inouye and his top staffer at the time, Clinton said he would approve the sacred lands order (which he did in May) and would grant clemency to Peltier, but only during his second term in office, not before the election.
The world knows what happened after Clinton was re-elected. There was a budget impasse, government shut down, interns ate pizza in the Oval Office, one snapped her thong at the president, they carried on, she talked, he lied, the House impeached him, the Senate considered it, his legal and financial woes mounted and then there was the interminable election of 2000.
On election day, Nov. 7, Clinton was asked about Peltier's clemency application during a WBAI interview. "I don't have a position I can announce yet," he said. "I have never had the time to sit down myself and review that case. I know it's very important to a lot of people, maybe on both sides of the issue, and I think I owe it to them to give it an honest look-see."
Both the pro-clemency and anti-clemency campaigns kicked into high gear.
Freeh wrote to Clinton on Dec. 5, urging him to deny clemency to Peltier: "Mr. President, there is no issue more deeply felt within the FBI." His letter circulated widely on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reported that Clinton's top aides only learned of it "when it was posted on the web site of Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-IL)."
Freeh's letter equated the pro-clemency position with disrespect for law enforcement. It not only had the effect of mobilizing opposition to Peltier's release, it refocused media attention from the campaign for clemency to the one against it. On Dec. 10, 3,000 pro-clemency demonstrators marched in New York City, but they received no national news coverage.
Some 500 FBI agents mounted their own demonstrations on Dec. 15, taking the unprecedented step of marching to the White House with an anti-clemency petition signed by 9,500 law enforcement officers. Their protest lead the national news.
On the eve of the FBI march, former Rep. Edwards wrote to the president that granting clemency "should not be viewed as expressing any disrespect for the current agents or leadership of the FBI, nor would it represent any condoning of the killings .... it would serve as a crucial step in the reconciliation and healing between the U.S. Government and Native Americans."
Judiciary committee chair Hyde and 21 other House members wrote to Clinton on the day of the FBI march, opposing clemency. Judiciary's ranking member, Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), and 17 other House members wrote to Clinton, supporting clemency. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), the second highest Democrat on the judiciary panel, and a handful of other congressional members wrote separately to Clinton to free Peltier.
The week after the FBI march, the president met with Gov. William Janklow (R-SD), who was the state's attorney general in 1975. He urged rejection of the clemency bid. By Dec. 21, newspapers were reporting that Clinton was unlikely to free Peltier, quoting an unnamed senior White House official as saying the president found Janklow's case persuasive.
"I am probably the one that's responsible for Leonard Peltier not getting out," said Janklow in a Feb. 2 press conference. "I know what happened at Oglala," he said. "Leonard Peltier is not innocent. He's a cold-blooded murderer."
The president granted 62 pardons on Dec. 22, but passed on Peltier's application for clemency. That day, top United Nations human rights official Mary Robinson wrote Clinton, noting a "remarkably broad" coalition, including Nelson Mandela and seven other Nobel Laureates, that wants freedom for Peltier.
Gov. Frank Keating (R-OK), a former FBI special agent, weighed in with an opinion piece, "Don't Free Peltier," in the Dec. 23 Wall Street Journal: "This man does not deserve clemency. But amazingly, he has become a martyr to the left, who may succeed in convincing Mr. Clinton to take action in his case. That would be an insult to all law enforcement officers, and would leave an indelible stain on the Clinton presidency .... Clemency for Peltier would be a sad and shameful way to close a presidency."
A delegation of 8 Lakota elders made plans to take a pipe bag to the president and to ask for Peltier's freedom. A group of film actors were helping them. In early January, "Clinton called our house for Winona Ryder," said Tom Cook (Mohawk), who lives in Chadron, Nebraska, with his Oglala wife Loretta Cook. He recalled that the actress "talked for about five minutes and said Clinton would give her one hour on his schedule, but no press, no delegation and no gift."
Bruce Ellison, Peltier's lawyer since 1976, also had been working through a Hollywood group to gain access to Clinton. Actor Peter Coyote arranged a meeting on Jan. 11 for Ellison, writer Matthiessen and film producer John Kilik with White House counsels Bruce Lindsey and Mary Beth Nolan. "Clinton was devoting personal time to reviewing the case and reading transcripts," said Ellison.
Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-SD) said Clinton asked his view on clemency for Peltier and he advised against it, according to a Jan. 15 Associated Press report: "I'm opposed to a pardon of Leonard Peltier and have always been opposed. That is what I shared with him. I believe the law enforcement agencies ... and the accounts they provided about what happened and how it happened. I believe that is a matter well documented."
Two hours before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President George W. Bush, the White House announced that Clinton had freed more than 150 people. Again, Peltier was not on the list.
Daschle's word may have been the last one on the subject. Attorney Harbury has a different theory: "I think Monica Lewinsky had the last word." She refers to the deal that Clinton struck with the independent counsel on Jan. 19 to avoid possible perjury or obstruction of justice indictments.
Ellison had been optimistic about Peltier's prospects, "until late Wednesday or early Thursday (Jan. 17-18), when I noticed an apparent change in attitude from the White House," he said. "I heard one rumor, from a very close source, that Leonard Peltier's name came up in Clinton's negotiation."
Ellison said he had no way of verifying the rumor, but had no problem believing it. "It's the same Justice department," he said. As of press time, Julia Payne, spokeswoman for the former president, did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, but the Colorado Daily reported on May 15 that she denied the rumor.
"I agree with Bruce," said Harbury. "FBI and Justice officials were disinforming the White House and the Hill. Their public statements were outrageous, with a clear goal to deceive, so I can only guess what their private conversations were like. Hill staffers were telling us that the FBI was counter-lobbying our effort to get signatures on a letter, and that they were threatening. That's not supposed to be their role.
"I suspect very strongly that inaction on Leonard's bid for clemency was de facto a part of Clinton's deal, but I cannot prove that."