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Peltier faces parole board nearly 50 years after conviction

Peltier conviction headline from the April 19, 1977 edition of the The Daily Republic
The Daily Republic
Peltier conviction headline from the April 19, 1977 edition of the The Daily Republic

Many advocates are calling for the release of 79-year-old Leonard Peltier from federal prison, though some say he should remain imprisoned for his conviction following a shootout with FBI agents in Pine Ridge in 1975.

Peltier, who had a parole hearing Monday, has spent most of his life in federal prison. His attorney said his health is failing.

Some say Peltier’s incarceration stands in the way of reconciliation.

Peltier is serving two life sentences after being convicted for the murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970’s.

In 1975, two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ron Williams, were killed on the Pine Ridge Reservation during a shootout near the town of Oglala.

“Somebody had to pay the price, and I think that’s where Leonard Peltier is sitting," said Milo Yellow Hair, an Oglala Lakota who was part of the American Indian Movement and 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation.

Yellow Hair is a friend of Peltier’s and said nearly 50 years later it’s time for forgiveness and to move forward.

“As long as Leonard is in prison there will always been that deep, deep distrust of the American judicial system by the people that it affected the most," Yellow Hair said. "And that is the indigenous people of North American, especially—in particular—the US.”

Many critics of Peltier’s conviction call him a political prisoner. Bruce Ellison is a Black Hills attorney who was Peltier’s lawyer the 1977 case. Ellison worked on appeals and clemency efforts and says it’s time for Peltier’s release.

“Peltier represents an individual who—basically this is about revenge,” Ellison said. “Two agents died, so that’s all that matters. That’s a pretty sad thing about claiming that it’s about justice.”

Others argue Peltier should serve out his life sentences. That includes Ed Woods, a retired FBI agent with the organization No Parole Peltier.

In a letter to the Parole commissioner, Woods said Peltier has not earned release. Woods adds the two FBI agents were robbed of their opportunity to fulfill their own lives.

“Leonard Peltier and his supporters claim he is a ‘political prisoner.’ This could not be further from the truth," Woods wrote. "Through decades of folklore and myth Peltier has attempted to change the narrative and alter the truth, however, the facts tell an entirely different story.”

Peltier’s last parole hearing was in 2009. In 2017, then-President Barack Obama denied a clemency request. Another request is pending before President Biden.

A parole decision is required in the next three weeks.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.