Free Peltier! Says Ex-Federal Prosecutor

Cynthia K. Dunne

When I left my job after 28 years as a federal prosecutor to volunteer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I was warned by a friend in the community, “do yourself a favor, never state an opinion about Leonard Peltier.” We both assumed I would oppose Peltier's release from prison; we were wrong.

Peltier is an American Indian activist who was convicted in 1977 of the 1975 murders of FBI Special Agents Jack R. Coler, 28, and Ronald A. Williams, 27, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The murders were horrific: The two young agents went to the Reservation to arrest a fugitive, a shootout occurred, they were outnumbered, and when they attempted to surrender they were shot in the head, at close range.

Law enforcement, the victims’ families and the public have an obvious interest in holding someone accountable for the murders.

Having lost the criminal trials against the first two men charged with the murders, however, government agents reportedly broke the law to ensure that Leonard Peltier would not get off. According to court records: agents provided false affidavits to a court; testimony was coerced; and critical documents that conflicted with the government’s primary theory of the case were withheld from Peltier’s attorneys.

Based on a record that many courts today would characterize a “corrupted investigation,” a jury found Peltier guilty. Reviewing courts did not reverse the conviction, but in a truly extraordinary move, the judge who authored the opinion that upheld the guilty verdict later urged the Committee on Indian Affairs to take action to release Peltier, writing:

“the US government over-reacted … and must share responsibility for the ... firefight…. The FBI used improper tactics in

 securing Peltier’s extradition ... and in otherwise investigating and trying the Peltier case.”

Humanitarians from around the world have called for Peltier's release and after four decades of controversy, he is an icon who symbolizes the historic and continuing injustices facing many American Indians: forced relocations, breached treaties, coercive removals of children, involuntary sterilization of women, racism, abuse in the hands of law enforcement and worse.

The argument for Peltier’s release is exceptionally compelling, particularly when viewed in its historic context.

The murders of agents Coler and Williams occurred in the wake of the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a violent episode that reflected a boiling point of discontent over problems in Native communities. During the FBI’s well-meaning but Waco-like response and eventual retreat, the crisis escalated, and undermined the community’s already rocky relations with federal authorities.

On June 26, 1975, Special Agents Coler and Williams went to the unstable Pine Ridge Reservation to hunt for a fugitive without proper back-up. This is neither to cast blame on the federal government nor to justify the murders - but to provide context. We send fully loaded Navy Seal teams into less dangerous situations, to ensure the team’s safety.

It is significant that just miles away from where the agents were shot, less than a century earlier more than 100 unarmed Lakota men, women and children were murdered at Wounded Knee by the 7th Cavalry. Although a Concurrent Resolution of Congress expressed “deep regret” for the Massacre, the US government refuses to revoke more than 20 Medals of Honor that were issued to Military Officers and men who murdered the unarmed Lakota.

People instinctively reply that Lakota families should “get over” the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and yet, they never would suggest that the Coler and Williams families should “get over” the federal agents’ deaths.

The only way to reconcile our government’s perpetual celebration of the senseless deaths of hundreds of unarmed Lakota with its heavy-handed and uncompromising pursuit of justice for the senseless deaths of two federal agents, is to place a significantly lower value on the lives of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children.

Perhaps the greatest irony, however, is that the integrity of the system of justice that Special Agents Coler and Williams died for is tarnished if—as courts have reported—to secure Peltier’s conviction, federal agents over-reached, turned a blind eye to leads that weakened their case and withheld relevant evidence that they were sworn to produce to Peltier’s attorneys.The American justice system is designed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Although the murder of two FBI agents is among the most significant crimes imaginable, Peltier has spent four decades in prison and justice has been served for the murders of Special Agents Coler and Williams.

Now, it is time to give due respect to the integrity of the American system of justice for which the brave federal agents died. It is time for President Obama to grant Clemency to Leonard Peltier.

Cynthia K. Dunne, Esq., is a director of a nonprofit corporation that works with youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. For 28 years Cindy worked as an Assistant United States Attorney/Senior Trial Counsel in Office of the US Attorney for Southern District of New York, where she prosecuted a broad variety of cases including public corruption and civil rights offenses.

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Sammy7's picture
Cynthia, with respect, there is no integrity in the American System of Justice. Granting clemency to Leonard Peltier now, after nearly forty years in prison, on the basis of restoring integrity to the American System of Justice, is like putting lipstick on Uncle Sam. It's pure Hubris! Freeing Leonard Peltier on the basis of a corrupt American system of justice and the severe compromised values of the FBI, Judges, and Prison leadership and politicians, along with an admission of wrongdoing, cowardice, extended prison sentences for each, and an apology, might approach enough to balance the scales of justice regarding Leonard Peltier. I however doubt even that would wipe the darkness from government officials. They are seemingly dark to the bone.
jamessimon500's picture
It is sad that someone conversant with the law is so embarrassingly uninformed and misguided about the Peltier murders, spouting the same old propaganda that keeps the myth of innocence alive to the great detriment of Indian Country. Perhaps some documented quotes will help Cynthia see the light of truth about this unrepentant killer and sociopathic liar: "This story is true.” Leonard Peltier, assuring his supporters that a mysterious Mr. X shot the FBI agents, with what his lawyer, Mike Kuzma, later admitted was a “concoction.” “Peter, you put my life in jeopardy and you put the lives of my family in jeopardy by putting that bullshit in your books. Why didn’t you call me and ask me if it was true?” Dean Butler, chastising Peter Matthiessen for including Peltier’s lone alibi, Mr. X, in his book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. An AIM member, David Hill, reportedly played the role of Mr. X in a video aired on American television. “I seen Joe when he pulled it out of the trunk and I looked at him when he put it on, and he gave me a smile.” Leonard Peltier, standing over the bodies of Jack Coler and Ron Williams moments after their heads were blown off, commenting on Joe Stuntz wearing Jack Coler’s green FBI jacket taken from his car trunk, as quoted in Peter Matthiessen’s, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. “I didn’t think nothing about it at the time: all I could think of was, We got to get out of here!” Leonard Peltier, reacting to Joe Stuntz wearing Jack Coler’s jacket, from In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Peltier could hear the chatter over the FBI car radio from other agents who were racing to the scene and attempting to re-establish contact with Agent Williams in response to his calls for help. "The circumstantial evidence presented at the extradition hearing, taken alone [without the Poor Bear affidavits], constituted sufficient evidence to justify Mr. Peltier's committal on the two murder charges." Anne McLellen, Canadian Minister of Justice, in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, October 12, 1999. “The two witnesses testified outside the presence of the jury that after their testimony at trial, they had been threatened by Peltier himself that if they did not return to court and testify that their earlier testimony had been induced by F.B.I. threats, their lives would be in danger.” United States v. Peltier, 585 F. 2d 314, U.S. App. Decision September 14, 1978. "There is no doubt that in June 1975 Leonard Peltier put a loaded gun in my mother's mouth during one of her interrogations and that six months later, other members of the American Indian Movement carried out my mother's torture, rape and murder. Leonard knows a lot about the people involved but even today, after all these years, he refuses to cooperate in the on-going murder investigation." Denise Maloney, daughter of AIM murder victim Anna Mae Pictou Aquash (Mi'kmaq) "This story that the government admitted they don't know who shot the agents comes from an out-of-context quote from prosecutor Lynn Crooks. Let me tell you something. I know Lynn Crooks, and there is no one on the planet more convinced of Peltier's guilt than Lynn Crooks." John M. Trimbach, American Indian Mafia Mark Potter: “Did you fire at those agents, Coler and Williams? Leonard Peltier: “I shot in their direction, yes.” CNN interview, Oct 1999. Later in the interview, Peltier admits he was near the two dead agents. "When all is said and done, however, a few simple but very important facts remain. The casing introduced into evidence in fact had been extracted from the Wichita AR-15. This point was not disputed." Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Feb 1986, finding of fact that the shell casing found at the murder scene was ejected from the AR-15 carried by Peltier. “The motherf---er was begging for his life but I shot him anyway.” Sworn testimony attributed to Leonard Peltier, boasting in the Marlon Brando motor home about shooting Ron Williams, as heard by Dennis Banks, Ka-Mook Banks, Bernie Lafferty, and (soon-to-be-murdered) Anna Mae Aquash. According to the autopsy report, Ron Williams died with his right hand held up in front of his face; there were powder burns on his fingers. "... the greater probability is that you yourself fired the fatal shots... It would be unjust to treat the slaying of these F.B.I. agents, while they lay wounded and helpless, as if your actions had been part of a gun battle. Neither the state of relations between Native American militants and law enforcement at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation prior to June 26, 1975, nor the exchanges of gunfire between individuals at the Jumping Bull Compound and the law enforcement agents who arrived there during the hours after Agents Coler and Williams were murdered, explains or mitigates the crimes you committed...Your release on parole would promote disrespect for the law in contravention of 18 U.S.C...." Leonard Peltier’s 1993 Parole Board, commenting on his aiding and abetting conviction. “I never thought my commitment would mean sacrificing like this, but I was willing to do so nonetheless. And really, if necessary, I’d do it all over again, because it was the right thing to do.” Peltier’s statement to supporters, Feb 6, 2010. Parole may be granted when the offender's "...release would not depreciate the seriousness of the offense." DOJ policy statement on parole.