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For nearly five decades, Leonard Peltier has remained behind bars, serving a pair of life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Upheld as a political prisoner among his fellow activists, his supporters call it a miscarriage of justice, while the FBI insists that justice has been served and Peltier should never be released.

This week, he once again campaigned for his parole after spending 47 years in prison for murders he said he didn't commit.

A 6½-hour parole hearing was held in a small conference room Monday in Coleman I Penitentiary at the federal prison complex in Coleman, Fla., northwest of Orlando. Present were Peltier, 79, a member of the American Indian Movement who has long maintained his innocence, along with his three lawyers, and representatives from the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fargo and family members of Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.

FBI Director Christopher Wray submitted a statement urging the commission to reject Peltier's parole.

"We must never forget or put aside that Peltier intentionally murdered these two young men and has never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions. … Granting parole for Peltier would only serve to diminish the brutality of his crime and further the suffering of the surviving families of Coler and Williams, as well as the larger FBI family."

But Peltier's role in their deaths has long been disputed. Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge from Tennessee and one of Peltier's attorneys, attended the hearing at Coleman.

"Our position is that you've got a conviction on a seriously flawed set of facts," he said in an interview. "You have a conviction that is seriously tainted with investigation and prosecutorial misconduct, yet Leonard has spent over half of his life in prison. Any additional incarceration is just retribution. It serves no purpose toward any idea of justice. You also have got a nearly 80-year-old man who spent nearly 50 years in prison. He has a serious health condition. The prison cannot take care of his health needs. They got their pound of flesh. It's time to end this."

The American Indian Movement has long maintained that Peltier is innocent, noting that "the U.S. Parole Commission has held a number of hearings on Leonard's case over the years, but it has always denied his parole on the grounds that he won't accept criminal responsibility for killing Coler and Williams — murders he simply did not commit."

Peltier supporters gathered on the National Mall in 2023.
Peltier supporters gathered on the National Mall in 2023.

Joy Asico, AP Images for NDN Collective and Amnesty International

"We've been by Leonard's side ever since. Since 1977, we've demanded his freedom," said Lisa Bellanger, AIM Grand Governing Council co-director. "Evidence that exonerates him includes documents, proven to be illegal, used to secure his extradition from Canada, recanted witness testimony, and the court's decision to exclude ballistics and other evidence surrounding the shooting, all of which prejudiced the process and prevented a fair trial."

Peltier's former wife, Stephanie Autumn, of Woodbury, expressed both hope and despair about his fate.

"I believe in the prayers and ceremonies of Native people across Indian Country, that gives me hope," she said in an interview on Thursday. "I do not hold faith in the justice systems to make the right and moral decision to release Leonard."

Political prisoner or 'heinous' killer

In 1973, Native Americans led by the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., over Indian rights issues in a historic standoff with federal authorities. In 1974, two AIM leaders, Dennis Banks and Russell Means, went on trial in federal court in St. Paul. The trial ended when U.S. District Judge Fred Nichol dismissed the charges, citing government conduct.

The following year, Coler and Williams were shot and wounded while driving separate cars as they chased a robbery suspect on the reservation. A gunman then shot and killed the agents at close range. The FBI said that gunman was Peltier. Supporters of Peltier said that prosecutors only showed that he was present at the shootout, not that he fired the fatal shots.

At Peltier's trial in 1977, "you had the withholding of exculpatory evidence by the prosecution," Sharp said. "There was a ballistics test that showed that it was not Leonard's weapon that killed the agents."

Two other AIM members, Robert Robideau and Dino Butler, were acquitted in a separate trial. Peltier fled to Canada and was extradited.

Peltier has gained international support, including the backing of Amnesty International and the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.

Peltier has also had strong support among Minnesota activists. Minneapolis folk singer Larry Long and the late AIM attorney Larry Leventhal led an unsuccessful campaign urging President Barack Obama to pardon him. Long recently released an album that includes a song supporting Peltier. Dakota elder and activist Strong Buffalo of St. Paul worked at the International Indian Treaty Council to raise funds for the Peltier defense. Chris Mato Nunpa of the Yellow Medicine Community near Granite Falls built support for Peltier's release.

"He's wrongly accused," said Mato Nunpa. "They need to blame someone for the killing of two FBI agents and he's the one they chose to blame."

Bill Means, the brother of Russell Means, who died in 2012, lived in Minneapolis for many years but returned to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He has followed the Peltier case closely over the decades.

"He's a political prisoner, no question," said Means, the past executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council. "People who were convicted on much stronger evidence are out of prison."

Current FBI agents have continued to lobby against his parole.

"An early release of Peltier would be a cruel act of betrayal to the families and colleagues of Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, who were murdered by Peltier," wrote Natalie Bara, president of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association, in a letter to the parole commission. "Peltier's age and celebrity status among activists do not change the clear truth — Leonard Peltier is not an appropriate candidate for release under the U.S. Parole Commission's rules and procedures. … Leonard Peltier should serve the full sentence for his heinous crimes."

If he were released, Autumn said, he would return to Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota to be with his children, grandchildren and other relatives.

A hearing examiner listened to the arguments last Monday. The parole commission has five seats, but only two have been filled, according to Sharp. A majority decision is needed on whether Peltier is paroled. The hearing officer will make his recommendation to one of the two commissioners. If the commissioner agrees with the recommendation, the decision stands. If the first commissioner disagrees, the decision lies with the second commissioner.

The commission has up to 21 days to make its decision, which means it could rule as late as July 1.