Leonard Peltier has been in jail in the United States for the past 24 years, serving a double life sentence for the murders of two FBI agents in 1975. His next parole hearing will not come before 2004. Peltier is now 55 years of age and is in ill-health.
An international movement has asked the President of the United States to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier. There is wide support in Canada for Peltiers release.
In June, 1975 a highly volatile situation had developed near Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Members of AIM, the American Indian Movement, including Leonard Peltier, were invited onto the Pine Ridge reservation by the traditional chiefs to provide support for the political aspirations of those on the reservation. They were also there to provide protection from vigilantes and rogue law enforcement personnel who had been killing local Indian people. The FBI and other heavily armed law enforcement agencies had moved into the area. The FBI was understood to have been behind recent attempts to assassinate AIM leaders and at least one AIM member, Leonard Peltier himself, had a warrant out for his arrest. The AIM supporters were armed. The situation was tense.
Two FBI agents came onto the reservation on the morning of July 26, 1975, purportedly with a warrant for the arrest of an AIM member. Some say their real intent was to provoke an incident. Shooting started, though at a distance. The two agents were soon wounded. Someone came up to them and killed them at close quarters. The AIM members and others, including Peltier, escaped.
Peltier and three others were later charged with the murder of the two agents. Peltier fled to Canada where he was arrested in February, 1976. After a controversial extradition hearing, and an application to the then Minister of Justice Ron Basford to refuse the extradition as he had the right to do under the Act, Peltier was turned over to the American government on four charges. He was later acquitted of two of the charges, but convicted of murdering the two agents.
Peltiers case has won widespread international attention because of doubts about the justice of his extradition from Canada, doubts about the fairness of his conviction at trial, concern about his treatment in jail and because of the political nature of his arrest, conviction and continuing incarceration. Peltier himself denies he killed the two agents.
On October 15, 1999 the Canadian Minister of Justice Anne McLellan released a five-year old report by the Department of Justice vindicating its own actions and reaffirming its view that the extradition was proper. Ms. McLellan announced that she had written to the U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno advising that the Canadian government had no reason to challenge the extradition of Peltier in 1976.
Peltiers only hope for release is President Clinton. Clinton has indicated he will consider clemency. He has before him a report on the issue from an official appointed to review the case, but so far apparently made no decision. There are powerful forces arrayed on both sides of the issue in the U.S. and it is a hot political issue there. The best timing for the President to grant clemency if he is so minded will come after the next Presidential election in November, 2000, and before he leaves office in January, 2001. Before the election, he is unlikely to want to stir up the passions of the law enforcement community, or for that matter to disappoint the advocates of clemency.
There is a small but dogged Leonard Peltier Defense Committee Canada driven for the past 20 years by Frank and Anne Dreaver. Warren Allmand, the former Liberal M.P. and presently chair of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (of which Ed Broadbent was the first chair) has been a consistent supporter. He did a private report for Allan Rock that apparently contradicts the Department of Justice position. The CLC and the NDP have both passed supporting convention resolutions. A number of academics and lawyers have taken an important interest in the case, including Prof. Dianne Martin and Prof. Bruce Ryder of Osgoode Hall Law School and James Lockyer of the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. Peter Worthington has taken up the case with energy and journalistic enthusiasm. There are cautious indications of support from some Reform Party M.P.s, most notably John Reynolds.