Published September 2, 2016
WASHINGTON — This week, President Obama commuted the sentences for 111 inmates, bringing the total commutations (325) he has announced this month to a record high—the most from any president in a single month. Just a few weeks ago, President Obama also set a single-day record by commuting the sentences of 214 other inmates in one day. The Administration has now commuted the sentences of 673 inmates, which is nearly equal to the number of commutations issued by the previous 11 administrations combined (690).
It’s worth remembering that the cases of nonviolent drug offenders are not the only compelling clemency applications languishing on the President’s desk. As President Obama works to carve out a legacy of upholding justice and equity in the struggle to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, he also has the opportunity to address even older cases that require a truly extraordinary remedy. One such person is Leonard Peltier.
Amnesty International has worked for years to secure Native American prison Leonard Peltier’s immediate release. Now, clemency from the Obama Administration may be the only opportunity to bring some measure of justice to a case that has troubled many people for decades.
When arrested, Peltier was a leading member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), whose members were struggling for the rights of native people. He was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a 1975 shoot-out on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Peltier has been serving two consecutive life sentences since 1977, despite the fact that the legal processes surrounding his extradition, conviction, and post-conviction have been riddled with flaws. He has repeatedly been denied parole, despite evidence of coerced testimony and withholding of key ballistics evidence. The government has argued that, even if they can no longer prove that Peltier killed the agents, he is still guilty of “aiding and abetting” in the murders.
Amnesty International believes that the doubts which have been raised about Peltier’s role in the actual killings of the agents undermine the entire case against him.
Time is critical—Peltier is now 71 years old and suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, the aftereffects of a stroke, complications from jaw surgery, and most urgently, an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA), which can be fatal if it ruptures.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has communicated that they do not intend to operate on Peltier to repair or remove the AAA until it reaches five centimeters in size. As a result, he lives in constant fear. The precariousness of his situation is heightened both by the fact that he is incarcerated in a maximum security prison, and BOP’s serious staffing shortage of medical professionals.