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EXCLUSIVE: Native American activist imprisoned 40 years for FBI agent deaths still fights for clemency from President Obama: ‘I am prepared to die here’

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Marchers carry a large painting of American Indian Leonard Peltier during a “National Day of Mourning,” Thursday, Nov. 22, 2001, in Plymouth, Mass.

lead photo (STEVEN SENNE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Wildwood, Fla. – The same high-security prison holds two men with vastly different lives, both shaped irrevocably by the same federal agency: The FBI.One of them terrorized the Northeast for nearly 30 years, an Irish-American mobster named Whitey Bulger who ruled Boston with unparalleled brutality and oversaw a sprawling organized crime enterprise.

He also, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, acted as an FBI informant for decades — even as he executed competitors and murdered innocents.

When the FBI finally decided to move on Bulger in 1995, one of its own agents tipped him off — allowing the notorious crime lord to disappear for 16 years.

Nabbed at a California beach bungalow in 2011, convicted two years later of 31 crimes — including 11 murders — Bulger, 86, now inhabits Coleman 2, a hulking yellow cinderblock federal penitentiary.

Next door, in Coleman 1, sits Leonard Peltier, another inmate whose life was upended by the FBI.

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This 2011 United States Marshals Service mugshot shows oganized crime figure James “Whitey Bulger.

(HO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

For Peltier, it took only a single run-in with law enforcement to determine his destiny.

While Bulger ruled the Boston underworld and lived on the lam, the 71-year-old Native American activist in the adjoining lock up has called a prison cell home for four decades.

Peltier insists he didn’t fire the fatal shots that put him behind bars — the shots that felled FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams during a June 26, 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

“I was at Pine Ridge that day. I did exchange fire with the authorities who were shooting at us — but I didn’t kill those agents,” Peltier told the Daily News during a visit last week to his high-security facility.

“Of course I feel remorse,” he added. “Nobody should have died that day, the whole thing should never have happened. It was a terrible tragedy.”

This is an undated file photo of Indian activist Leonard Peltier who has been imprisoned for the murder of two FBI agents. 

This is an undated file photo of Indian activist Leonard Peltier who has been imprisoned for the murder of two FBI agents.

(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

His refusal to admit guilt has a price. His prior parole requests were denied for that reason.

“I’ve given the same answer for 40 years. I didn’t do it and I won’t say that I did. I won’t betray my people like that, I won’t betray my culture,” said the activist.

Now a 71-year-old grandfather, Peltier is next up for parole in 2024, when he will be 79. He suffers from diabetes, prostate problems, and complications with his jaw from childhood tetanus and botched prison surgeries.

But the most worrisome ailment is a new one — an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

“It’s currently 5 centimeters by 4.5 centimeters,” he said of the potentially deadly bubble on his aorta. “They told me it must be 5 by 5 before they can operate.”

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Leonard Peltier, American Indian Movement leader, is led across Okalla prison exercise yard to a waiting helicopter.

(BETTMANN/BETTMANN ARCHIVE)

Convicted of killing Coler and Williams in April 1977, Peltier long ago gave up on getting a new trial — despite the prosecutorial missteps, some acknowledged by judges, that his defense teams have presented at numerous appeals.

“I am prepared to die here. I would prefer it be back at my home, but I’m a realistic about my chances,” he said.

“I have my funeral all planned, I want a full ceremonial burial, with drumming, everything. Traditionally, it should be about three days,” said Peltier.

An Indian of Anishinabe, Dakota, and Lakota heritage, Peltier grew up among the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Fort Totten Sioux Nations of North Dakota.

He wants to be buried next to his father’s grave on the ancestral land that he roamed as a boy, fishing its many lakes for perch and trout to sell in the winter, four for $1.

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Spectators raise signs and a photo in support of Peltier during President Clinton’s speech, July 7, 1999 at Pine Ridge High School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

(CLIFF SCHIAPPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Peltier holds out some hope that he may get clemency — “I’ll do it with house arrest, whatever they want,” he says. But bids for mercy haven’t worked for him in the past.

He got close in 2001, when outgoing President Bill Clinton was on the verge, Peltier’s lawyers thought, of issuing him a pardon.

But the FBI held a protest demonstration in downtown D.C. Some 500 agents and retired G-men took to the streets to show their outrage at the possibility of clemency for a man convicted of gunning down two of their own.

On his last day in office, Clinton chose to pardon a man who was among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted — fugitive financier Marc Rich. He was living in exile in Switzerland to avoid prison for his slimy financial dealings with a host of American enemies, including Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, the apartheid regime in South Africa, Khadafy’s Libya, and many, many more.

In 2009, President George Bush denied Peltier clemency.

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An unidentified FBI agent protesting clemency for Leonard Peltier, holds an image of Ron Williams and Jack Coler, Dec. 15, 2000.

(HILLERY SMITH GARRISON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Despite those setbacks, the gray-haired and bespectacled prisoner remains a cause célèbre.

While Bulger received the Hollywood treatment, portrayed by Johnny Depp in last year’s “Black Mass,” Peltier has had the backing of Marlon Brando and Robert Redford, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and numerous members of Congress. Even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – at the height of the Cold War – denounced his incarceration as an abuse of power by a vengeful FBI.

But the attention hasn’t done anything to free Peltier – and, in certain circles, he believes, may even have hurt him.

“It makes it easy for some people to dismiss what happened to me, that I got railroaded into prison,” he said. “They look at all the attention and say, ‘There go those liberals, trying to get someone off again.’”

Now his supporters are trying once more — this time with President Obama.

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Robert Redford looking at film during final edit of his documentary “Incident at Ogalala” as monitor screen displays image of Leonard Peltier.

(TARO YAMASAKI/THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION/GETTY)

A petition for clemency was sent to the White House in late March. Letters asking for support are making the rounds in Congress.

The FBI and the Department of Justice declined to comment to The News on Peltier and his quest for release.

But the FBI still has Coler and Williams on its “Hall of Honor” page. They’re listed as having died while “attempting to serve arrest warrants for robbery and assault with a dangerous weapon on the Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation,” aka Pine Ridge.

Missing from the official version, however, is an acknowledgment of the questionable tactics used by the FBI on Indian reservations before and after the fateful shooting — and agency’s determined crackdown against various protest groups it viewed as a sinister threat to American democracy.

Only later would the FBI admit to illegally surveilling and infiltrating some of those groups — such as Weather Underground, Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army and others — through its controversial counter-intelligence program, known as COINTELPRO.

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Two unidentified members of a German Civil Rights Movement demonstrate near the U.S. embassy in Berlin, November 17, 1999 for the release of Leonard Peltier.

(MARKUS SCHREIBER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Peltier, like many Indian activists, was already on the FBI’s radar long before June 26, 1975, in part because of his involvement with the American Indian Movement, or AIM.

Started in Minneapolis in 1968, AIM was a militant organization like many in the 1970s. Its members occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969 and later marched to D.C. to take over the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs building — where it went public with shocking documentation of forced sterilization of young Indian women and the relocation of Indian children in English-only boarding schools for assimilation.

AIM pushed for a renewal of traditional Indian culture, autonomy of its tribal areas and the reclaiming of lands it felt had been illegally seized.

That set it up for a series of ongoing clashes with BIA-employed agents that policed native lands — often with unwanted and unwarranted force.

The FBI and other law enforcement agents had already displayed their willingness to shoot first and ask questions later during the 1973 shoot-out at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation. The siege lasted 71 days and left two Indians dead and a federal marshal seriously wounded.

A copy of a FBI internal memo obtained by Leonard Peltier's defense team during the course of his many appeals. The FBI in a June 1975 memo had said it would "literally require military assault forces" to overcome the "pockets of Indian population which consist almost exclusively of American Indian Movement members and their supporters on the Reservation."

A copy of an August 10, 1976 FBI internal memo obtained by Leonard Peltier's defense team during the course of his many appeals.

Copies of FBI internal memo obtained by Leonard Peltier’s defense team during the course of his many appeals.

When Coler and Williams entered the Pine Ridge land two years later, tensions were at an all-time high. Since 1972, its residents had been caught in a bloody and protracted power struggle between BIA and AIM members.

According to internal FBI documents obtained years after Peltier’s conviction — when his lawyers filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests — the agency viewed AIM as armed and dangerous.

One memo dated April 24, 1975 was titled: “The use of Special Agents of the FBI in a paramilitary law enforcement operation in Indian Country.”

It outlined the agency’s plan to deploy FBI agents “in a paramilitary law enforcement situation” in the event of a major confrontation on Pine Ridge.

The FBI also thought there were armed bunkers on the Pine Ridge reservation around the buildings known as the Jumping Bull Ranch — where the shootout occurred.

In a June 1975 memo — three weeks before the deadly shootings — the FBI had written it would “literally require military assault forces” to overcome the “pockets of Indian population which consist almost exclusively of American Indian Movement members and their supporters on the Reservation.”

But what the FBI thought were bunkers would later turn out to be collapsed root cellars.

As wrong as the FBI was on some things about Pine Ridge, it was correct in noting that the violence there was extreme.

It stemmed from a faction-driven fight around tribal leader Dick Wilson, president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Many residents complained that he gave the best BIA jobs to friends and family and terrorized his naysayers with his own private militia, Guardians of the Oglala Nation, also known as GOONs.

Between 1972 and 1975 there were dozens of suspicious deaths, assaults and late-night shootings. Pine Ridge was a war zone, with locals afraid to turn their lights on at night for fear bullets would spray their home.

Aztec troupe dancer Miguel Vega signs a letter to President Clinton requesting executive clemency for Peltier during a rally, Dec. 31, 2000, in Los Angeles.

Aztec troupe dancer Miguel Vega signs a letter to President Clinton requesting executive clemency for Peltier during a rally, Dec. 31, 2000, in Los Angeles.

(LEE CELANO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

AIM members were called in by residents who didn’t support Wilson and were being bullied by his GOON squad, according to Oneida Nation member Dorothy Ninham, who was an early supporter of AIM.

But others felt AIM brought its own type of threats to the reservations.

“We were the resisters, that’s what we called ourselves. There were resisters and there was BIA,” said Peltier.

“We knew we were more than just feathers and buckskin, the way most people saw us. Indian culture has contributed great things to the world … we wanted to be recognized,” he added.

When Coler and Williams rolled onto the reservation just before noon June 26, 1975 it was already a powder keg ready to explode.

DK Dyson from Brooklyn, N.Y. stands along Route 15 during a rally for the parole of Leonard Peltier from the Federal Prison in Lewisburg, Pa., on July 28, 2009.

DK Dyson from Brooklyn, N.Y. stands along Route 15 during a rally for the parole of Leonard Peltier from the Federal Prison in Lewisburg, Pa., on July 28, 2009.

(MATTHEW HARRIS/AP)

The official reason for their presence was to find a man named Jimmy Eagle. They claimed he had stolen some cowboy boots in an earlier drunken brawl.

But many AIM members and Pine Ridge survivors have always believed the FBI, BIA and other law enforcement were planning an all-out assault on the Jumping Bull Ranch — and Coler and Williams made their move too early.

The FBI has insisted that the agents were fired at first — but those claims were hard to substantiate without any firsthand eyewitnesses.

Nobody knows who pulled the trigger that launched the shootout. But the agents soon found themselves pinned in their cars by Indians firing from a distance. The agents returned fire while calling for back up. Both were seriously wounded.

Coler and Williams were eventually killed by someone who moved much closer and shot them at fairly close range.

A raging shoot-out followed between roughly 40 armed Indians — including Peltier — and a mix of federal and local law enforcement.

In the melee, a young Indian man named Joseph Stuntz — who was wearing a jacket taken from one of the dead FBI agents — was cut down by a sniper bullet between the eyes.

Stuntz’ death was chalked up to a shot from a BIA officer’s carbine, although there was also an FBI agent also at the scene with a scope rifle in a nearby tree. There was never a formal investigation into Stuntz’ death.

“Did Stuntz life not matter? What about him?” Peltier said. “That’s what we were always fighting to change — the idea that Indian lives weren’t worth anything.”

The FBI charged three men with killing the agents: Peltier, and Bob Robideau and Dino Butler. Prosecutors also flirted with the idea of charging Jimmy Eagle, but realized that wouldn’t stick.

Members of the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee include, from left, Betty Ann Peltier-Solano, Kari Ann Cowan, Julia DeCoteau and David Hill pose in Fargo, N.D., on Nov. 3, 2008.

Members of the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee include, from left, Betty Ann Peltier-Solano, Kari Ann Cowan, Julia DeCoteau and David Hill pose in Fargo, N.D., on Nov. 3, 2008.

(DAVE KOLPACK/AP)

Peltier fled to Canada.

In his absence, Robideau and Butler were charged with aiding and abetting in the agents’ deaths. They argued to their Cedar Rapids, Iowa jury that they were returning fire in self-defense — and they were acquitted.

The FBI stepped up its hunt for Peltier, and eventually he was extradited — illegally, as it would turn out — and brought back to stand trial alone.

By the summer of 1976, the FBI was lining up its legal strategy.

An internal FBI memo dated Aug. 10, 1976 — obtained much later by his defense — detailed a meeting with prosecutors where everyone agreed the “full prosecutive weight of the federal government could be directed against Leonard Peltier.”

Leonard Peltier, who is serving two life sentences for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents, is shown in prison, in Feb. 1986.

Leonard Peltier, who is serving two life sentences for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents, is shown in prison, in Feb. 1986.

(CLIFF SCHIAPPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

By the time Peltier got hauled into a courtroom in 1977, the FBI had solidified its approach. Peltier was charged as the shooter in the murders. His trial was moved to Fargo, North Dakota — far away from the Cedar Rapids jury pool that acquitted his co-defendants. The judge also barred presentation of the same self-defense arguments used by Robideau and Butler.

“The evidence…indicates that Leonard Peltier was not only the leader of this group, he started the fight, he started the shootings and that he executed these two human beings at point blank range,” said prosecuting attorney Lynn Crooks during his closing arguments.

Peltier was found guilty by an all-white jury — and given two life sentences.

A year later, in Peltier’s first appeal, 8th Circuit Court Judge Donald Ross found “clear abuse of the investigative process by the FBI,” especially in the coercion of witnesses and manipulation of evidence.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office was also chastised for withholding evidence. At a 1984 evidentiary hearing, the prosecutor had to concede that the FBI lab’s ballistics link between Peltier and the alleged murder weapon was flawed.

THURSDAY, APRIL 29, 1999, FILE PHOTO

Leonard Peltier speaks during an interview at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., April 29, 1999.

(JOE LEDFORD/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But still, the judge refused to reconsider Peltier’s conviction.

At another appeal in 1986 — after FOIA requests from defense attorneys unearthed more questionable information about Peltier’s original conviction — prosecutors changed some of their arguments.

They could no longer say for a certainty who shot Coler and Williams, they said. They admitted the affidavits they used to extradite Peltier from Canada were fabricated, and reversing their position at trial, they admitted there was more than one rifle on the compound of the caliber that could have fired the rounds that killed Coler and Williams, according to transcripts and defense lawyer Bruce Ellison.

But none of that should lessen Peltier’s life sentence — or overturn his conviction, they argued.

“It’s legally, factually and morally irrelevant. To me, the law looks at [Peltier] in exactly the same way, whether he handed the gun to someone else and had them do it or whether he did it himself,” Crooks told CNN in a later interview.

This is an undated photo of a self-portrait by Leonard Peltier shown at the Sidewalk Arts Festival in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Sept. 12, 1995.

This is an undated photo of a self-portrait by Leonard Peltier shown at the Sidewalk Arts Festival in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Sept. 12, 1995.

(LEONARD PELTIER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Despite the changing story from prosecutors at Peltier’s 1986 appeal, the panel of judges hearing his case ruled against him — using a twist of logic that one of them would later come to doubt.

The panel said that while there was a “possibility” a jury would have acquitted Peltier at his initial trial if they’d seen all the records and data “improperly withheld from the defense,” the panel had to be convinced it was a “probability.”

The judge who wrote the ruling, Judge Gerald Heaney, said “We are not so convinced.”

After many more years of legal wrangling, Peltier ran out of options. His team switched to trying to get him parole, and then clemency.

In 1991, Judge Heaney — who admitted in an interview he was troubled by his 1986 appeals decision — wrote a letter to a U.S. Congressman asking for clemency for Peltier.

STAND ALONE PHOTO

Carolyn Poinelli of Boston, reads a description of Peltier’s oil painting, “Steve Reevis,” center on wall, during a silent auction of his work in Cambridge, Mass., Jan. 14, 2001.

(GRETCHEN ERTL/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The U.S. government “over-reacted” at the Pine Ridge shoot-out, with a response that “was essentially a military one that culminated in a deadly firefight on June 26, 1975,” Judge Heaney wrote.

“The U.S. government must share the responsibility with the Native Americans for the June 26 firefight,” he added, calling it a “mitigating circumstance” in the deaths of Coler and Williams.

Heaney also concluded that “more than one person was involved in the shooting of the FBI agents” and cited the “improper tactics” of the agency in Peltier’s case.

Finally, Heaney stressed that Peltier had served 14 years in a federal prison.

“At some point, a healing process must begin. We as a nation must treat Native Americans more fairly,” wrote Heaney, who died in 2010.

Twenty-five years after Heaney wrote his letter, Peltier is one of the oldest inmates at his high-security prison.

Flashes of the streetfighter he once was still remain – a necessary survival tactic at Coleman.

“Some of the guys still try to hustle me, they think I’m soft because I’m old now,” he said.

But these days, he’d rather paint than fight.

“I only feel free when I’m painting. I’ve got 20 years good behavior on my record now,” he said.

For him, the question of his guilt or innocence is no longer relevant.

“Whether people believe I did or didn’t do it, the fact remains I have served 40 years,” he said.

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/native-american-activist-jailed-40-years-shaky-prosecution-article-1.2654197

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