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Protesters seek medical release for man convicted in 1975 Pine Ridge shooting

Protesters demonstrate at the federal courthouse in Rapid City.
Arielle Zionts
/
SDPB
Protesters demonstrate at the federal courthouse in Rapid City.

Protesters marched through downtown Rapid City and rallied in front of the federal courthouse on Monday to demand the release of Leonard Peltier after he contracted COVID-19 while serving life in prison after being convicted of murdering two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.

"He is 77 years old with a heart condition, diabetes, aortic aneurism. He does fall into the criteria for a COVID release, an immediate COVID release," said Carol Gokee, co-director of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. She added that Peltier "has more than served any time for whatever crime they came up with for him."

The Rapid City protest — led and mostly attended by Native Americans — was one of six held across the country on Monday.

 Protesters march down Main Street in Rapid City as they call for the release of prisoner Leonard Peltier.
Arielle Zionts
/
SDPB
Protesters march down Main Street in Rapid City as they call for the release of prisoner Leonard Peltier.

Peltier, who has Ojibwa and Lakota heritage, was found guilty of murdering FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams at an American Indian Movement camp near Oglala.

Peltier, who is housed at a high-security prison in Florida, has said he participated in the shootout in self defense but did not kill the agents. He and his supporters also allege FBI agents coerced witnesses, and prosecutors withheld evidence while extraditing Peltier from Canada and trying him in North Dakota.

Native American members of the South Dakota Legislature — including the lone Republican member — The Oglala Sioux Tribe, the late Nelson Mandela, the National Congress of American Indians and a former prosecutor who helped send Peltier to prison are among those calling for Peltier's release.

Peltier has exhausted his appeals and will only be released if approved under a COVID-19 home confinement program or if the president grants him clemency.

His supporters are ramping up pressure on President Joe Biden due to Peltier's COVID status.

LaVonne Roach said she is able to relate to Peltier's plight since she also contracted COVID-19 in federal prison. The Rapid City woman served 23 years behind bars before President Donald Trump granted her clemency last year.

"The medical care in federal prisons is the worst you'll ever experience," she said. "I almost died two times in federal prison."

Jean Roach supports the release of Leonard Peltier. They both contracted COVID-19 while in federal prison.
Arielle Zionts
/
SDPB
Jean Roach supports the release of Leonard Peltier. They both contracted COVID-19 while in federal prison.

Gokee said the prisoners only have access to cloth masks. The last time she visited Peltier, she said, some guards were not wearing masks.

Peltier has been eligible for a booster shot since October but did not receive it before he tested positive on Jan. 28, Gokee said. She said Peltier is one of the few prisoners who has requested but not yet received a booster.

The Bureau of Prisons said it's offering the booster shot at all of its facilities but did not respond to SDPB News when asked about Peltier.

Gokee said Peltier has applied for and meets the conditions for a COVID-19 home confinement program for at-risk prisoners. She said his attorney is awaiting a response from the prison warden after being denied twice.

Gokee also said that Peltier has not been able to speak with his attorney since Jan. 29 while the attorney has not been allowed to speak with any prison leaders or medical staff. Every federal prison went on temporary lockdown on Jan. 29 after two prisoners died during a riot at a high-security prison in Texas.

The BOP said prisoner requests to speak to their attorneys "will be addressed on a case-by-case basis." It did not explain why Peltier's request was allegedly denied.

Leonard Peltier supporters listen to speakers at the federal courthouse in Rapid City.
Arielle Zionts
/
SDPB
Leonard Peltier supporters listen to speakers at the federal courthouse in Rapid City.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.