On Monday, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, citing inequities in our criminal justice system, saying the system can “work smarter and better.”
Obama hasn’t issued many pardons during his time in the White House. But his recent actions have left one group with renewed hope that the president will free one of their own, a man they call a “political prisoner.”
In 1975, during a confrontation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation located in the U.S. state of South Dakota, two FBI agents were shot and killed.
Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement, was arrested for the shootings despite providing alibis.
Two years prior, AIM had taken a stand against the U.S. government at Wounded Knee, where 300 Lakota were massacred in 1890. AIM, it should be noted, was classified as an extremist organization.
This is the historical context that culminated in the shooting of government agents and, ultimately, in Peltier’s arrest.
What followed was a miscarriage of justice that groups like Amnesty International have classified an “unfair trial.”
A description of the shooter’s vehicle did not match Peltier’s. Testimony placing Peltier on the scene was later recanted, with witnesses saying they were tied to chairs and denied their right to attorney.
Later forensics tests showed that the cartridge case from the scene of the crime did not match Peltier’s rifle. The Parole Commission has stated it “recognizes that the prosecution has conceded the lack of any direct evidence that [Peltier] personally participated in the executions of the two FBI agents.”
And yet, Peltier, now 70 years old, remains in prison.
Peltier’s supporters are many, and the list is impressive, having included the likes of the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Coretta Scott King, and Rigoberta Menchú.
President Obama, please do the right thing. Pardon Leonard Peltier. If he is guilty of anything, he is guilty of being a warrior for indigenous rights, an activist for a disenfranchised people, and a champion for a group that has been time and again mistreated and taken advantage of.
We are well aware of the broken relationship between Native Americans and law enforcement. Native Americans are the group most likely to be killed by police.
We are also well aware of the chronic inequities facing Native Americans in our criminal justice system. Just this month, an Alaska Native man was set free after being wrongly incarcerated for seventeen years.
You have spoken so eloquently on the shortcomings of this system. Right now, as I write this article, you are in Oklahoma, a former Indian territory, where you will speak from a federal prison and call for a fairer justice system.
This is an opportunity to prove the power behind those words, President Obama. This is an opportunity to heal relations between Native peoples and the American government.
Free Leonard Peltier.