In this special Indigenous Peoples’ Day episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with author and activist Ward Churchill about the wrongful imprisonment and deteriorating health of Indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier. A member of the American Indian Movement who was sent to prison in 1977 after a dubious trial sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences, Peltier’s continued imprisonment remains a stain on our “criminal justice” system.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. We want to take a minute to look at the situation of a political prisoner that belongs to the Indigenous population, Leonard Peltier. We did some stories on him in the past. We just wanted to update his case in recognition of the National Indigenous Day. And so joining me is professor Ward Churchill to give us an update.
Professor, thanks for joining me.
Ward Churchill: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Eddie Conway: It’s been a year since we talked about Leonard Peltier, and his health conditions, and his case. Can you just briefly update us, give us an overview first so that the audience can know where we are with that situation?
Ward Churchill: Well, Leonard remains in Coleman Prison, federal prison, in Florida, which is basically a supermax. It’s not somehow the super, supermax level they have in Colorado. But a supermax nonetheless, on a level with Marion, for example, which is where they originally sent him. Although he was not even qualified, actually, according to their criteria, to be sent there. He went straight from trial to Marion, to a supermax. He’s still there. They’re no longer on lockdown, although there was an extended lockdown not long ago.
His health issues remain the same. Only a year later, obviously, they’re worse. So, he suffers from an aortic aneurysm, for example. Which, despite medication, I can tell you from experience having had that myself, could rupture at any time. It’s uncomfortable, but if it ruptures, in all likelihood he’s dead before he can get medical treatment. And medical treatment at Coleman is not what you’d call top flight. He’s also badly diabetic, blind in one eye, has prostate issues, has issues with being able to walk, which impairs his mobility, and so on. It’s not getting any better nor will it get better, especially without treatment, remaining in Coleman facility.
He has requested a transfer to the federal correctional institute, a medium-security place in Wisconsin. That would place him in close proximity, or, at least, much closer proximity to the federal medical facility, penal medical facility, in Rochester, Minnesota. It would place him within, not immediate but, nonetheless, manageable strike distance for visiting purposes from family. Nobody lives in Florida. Actually, he’s from North Dakota, but family, he’s got people in Wisconsin, he’s got people in Minnesota. He’s 76 years old, coming on 77, obviously infirm, as well as aging. There’s no reason that he needs to be in a supermax. He presents no threat to anyone. Arguably he never did other than for reasons of self defense. That’s the situation.
Eddie Conway: Well, let’s take a minute here and step back–
Ward Churchill: Okay.
Eddie Conway: …In time and history. Give me a synopsis of who Leonard Peltier is, and why he’s being held, and how long has this been going on?
Ward Churchill: This has been going on, really, since 1976. He was held for a while in Canada, [which] the US attempted to extradite him. The charges on which he was convicted, although he had two co-defendants that were tried separately, because he was in Canada and it took a while to extradite him, both Bob Robideau and Dino Butler, who were the co-defendants, were acquitted at their trial on the basis of having acted in self defense. And the self defense was plausible, both because of the comportment of the FBI at their trial, but also because of what the US Civil Rights Commission had determined.
Now, this is their term, not mine, a ‘reign of terror’ that had been perpetrated on the reservation against members and supporters of the American Indian Movement over the preceding two years, which had left a number of people dead. There’s, basically, a counterinsurgency campaign that was being waged against the movement at that time. The firefight, in which the agents were killed that led to the trials, occurred on June 25, 1975… Excuse me, June 26. I confused it with the day Custer got his etiquette lesson. So it was one day removed from the anniversary of Custer and Little Bighorn.
It was a place near the town of Oglala on the reservation, a family property belonging to a pair of elders, Jumping Bulls. They had asked for security because they were part of the traditional group on Pine Ridge who were trying to recover the land in Black Hills, the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty area. This is who was being repressed.
So, Leonard, who was a member, as were both co-defendants of something, an entity, a sub-part of AIM, called the Northwest AIM Group, had agreed to provide security for them. The agents, essentially, attacked. Now, the context of this was that you had more than 250, essentially, SWAT personnel on call in the immediate area. So what these two agents that were killed were trying to do was initiate an armed confrontation with the members of AIM that were providing the security and on that basis, and the immediate goal was to take them out, but also have a pretext to introduce massive armed force on the reservation to end this conflict, which had been going on, as I said, for two years.
Now, Leonard was, despite the fact his co-defendants were acquitted for self defense in this matter, they both acknowledged having fired. In fact, Bob Robideau, essentially, said that he hit both agents and those would’ve been mortal wounds. Leonard was tried separately. None of the proceedings of the Cedar Rapids trial of Butler and Robideau was ruled admissible as evidence at his trial. So that was completely all eliminated by the judge on his evidentiary ruling, which allowed agents that had testified in one way against Butler and Robideau, J. Gary Adams, for example, testified to virtually the exact opposite against Leonard.
And, at the closing of the trial… There’s a lot that I could go through that was wrong with that, as courts have acknowledged at this point, quite a bit of it. But, at the end of the trial, Lynn Crooks, who was a prosecutor, took the jury through step by step graphically how Leonard had walked up and fired point blank into an already wounded agent. And then the second one who had his hand up and was begging for his life… If you remember, he had a wife and children. How the prosecutor could possibly have known what the agent was saying just before he’s shot didn’t occur to anyone apparently. I mean, he was just making it up as he went along. So you had this horrible scenario presented to the jury and they convicted on that basis.
Before the appellate court, years later, that same Lynn Crooks, who had done that performance to obtain conviction in court, conceded that he had no idea who shot the agents and that Leonard Peltier was never convicted of shooting the agents, but rather of aiding and abetting in the shooting, the killing of the agents. And this confused the appellate court, whose hearing, I think was Judge Heaney of the Eighth Circuit who, in somewhat bewildered condition, asked Crooks, well, aiding and abetting who? Butler and Robideau, they were acquitted. And Crooks says, I don’t know. Aiding and abetting himself, for all I know, but aiding and abetting nonetheless. Well that’s a wholly different scenario than they had carried in the press, and in court and everything to obtain the conviction of Leonard Peltier.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Let’s for a minute jump back forward.
Ward Churchill: Okay.
Eddie Conway: Are there any… I’m aware that they had a huge campaign to free Leonard Peltier–
Ward Churchill: Oh, yeah.
Eddie Conway: …Or Robert Redford, and so on. And it got to a point where one of the former presidents was going to give him a pardon. What happened there?
Ward Churchill: Well, you had, for the first time in history, a mass protest by the FBI. You had agents that came out, supposedly on their off time, with picket signs and picketed the White House, and in the back room, as you may recall, the president in question, which was Bill Clinton, had himself a few legal problems going on with Whitewater and this and that. And then, essentially, I think what happened–
Eddie Conway: You mean Monica Lewinsky, right?
Ward Churchill: Well, there was the Monica Lewinsky thing, as well, although that would not be a criminal offense. What the FBI told him [through a] back channel, and there’s, shall we say, circumstantial evidence to substantiate this. And so you can either go off and be an ex-president and run your foundation and make a couple of hundred thousand dollars for a 15 minutes speech for the rest of your life, or we can investigate you until the day you die and make your life miserable. So, choice is yours. Release Peltier and you’re going to get the miserable life. Do the right thing, leave him in prison and you can play your hand out as a noble ex-president.
Eddie Conway: Was the case taken in front of Obama, say, for instance?
Ward Churchill: Obama?
Eddie Conway: Because I know he released some people.
Ward Churchill: Yes, he did, but not Leonard. And the FBI’s pressure on this… Let me put it to you this way: Willie Nelson made supportive comments during a concert. Raised money for Leonard’s Peltier’s defense and his appeal process. The FBI went, literally, in Los Angeles, from store to store and from radio station to radio station asking the stores not to sell Willie Nelson albums anymore and for the radios not to play his music. Same with Kris Kristofferson. So they bring in real bare knuckle pressure to bear. It’s pretty crude.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So–
Ward Churchill: And so there’s no reason to think that’s gone away.
Eddie Conway: So what’s the status? Does he have any legal challenges left now?
Ward Churchill: Not really, although–
Eddie Conway: What’s the status of his case?
Ward Churchill: …The FBI is still releasing documents that have been withheld this whole time in dibs and dabs because there’s freedom of information litigation that continues to go on, and they send little chunks of paper that have theoretically been declassified. Why they were ever classified in the first place is an interesting question, and so on. But as things stand, I don’t think… Nobody seems to think that there is a basis to take an appeal back to court. It’s been exhausted. Despite the fact that on the last appeal it was demonstrated the key piece of evidence had no… The chain of custody could not be established.
Eddie Conway: Was that the M15?
Ward Churchill: There was a shell casing from a AR-15 rifle–
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Ward Churchill: …That was supposedly discovered by, well, one of two different agents on one of two different days in a trunk of a car that had already been searched. It was the open trunk of one of the agents’ cars that was killed. It had already been searched by forensics people and then conveniently somebody, one or another agent, found it, and then they can’t account for it until it shows up at the FBI laboratory, and they supposedly do a tool marks match to extract a mark. They couldn’t do a ballistics test, they said, because the weapon in question had been badly damaged in an explosion and fire on a Kansas turnpike.
Again, there are so many details to this that you can get lost in them pretty easily. So you had fabricated evidence, possibly, okay? In any event, evidence that would not sustain admission in a normal case. It was supposedly indicative of the fact that there was only one AR-15 used by AIM people that day. Actually there were a bunch of shell casings that had been found, but that was not acknowledged at trial. Even Hodge, who was top FBI ballistics guy at the time, testified to the effect that he had personally done the ballistics examination on this, had made the hookups, and nobody else was involved.
And Bill Kuntsler, who was handling the appeal at the time, holds up his ballistics report and says, this is your handwriting, right? And some notes that are on the margin. And Hodge says, that’s correct. And Kuntsler says, well, then whose handwriting is this? And he gets a little flustered and he says, well, that would’ve been my assistant [Tordovsky]. And he said, well, I thought you did this by yourself? I said, oh, I had my assistant. So the cop flips the page and points and says, okay. Your handwriting is accounted for. [Tordovsky’s] handwriting is accounted for, then whose is this?
And that’s in front of the trial judge, Benson, on appeal.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So–
Ward Churchill: So everybody goes home. Clearly the FBI’s evidentiary case just fell apart. But also you’ve got, essentially, flagrant perjury on the stand from the top, the ballistics guy.
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Ward Churchill: Benson calls everybody back into the courtroom that evening and says, Agent Hodge has something he’d like to say. Put him on the stand and he says, I misspoke. I misspoke. The evidence still stands. Well, the evidence didn’t stand and the court acknowledged that. Paraphrased closely how that was written, there is ample evidence of FBI misconduct in this case to reverse conviction. However, it would impute even more, and this we are reluctant to do. And so Peltier remains in prison. So, any normal cases would’ve been back to trial decades ago.
Eddie Conway: So, what is his support committee doing now, and what do they want the public to do if the public feels they can support asking for the freedom of Leonard Peltier?
Ward Churchill: Well, there’s two things that are happening right now: They’re pushing rather hard on the change of institution, Leonard to be transferred to Wisconsin, to the medium-security facility, receive better medical treatment on-site and also have immediate access to the BOP hospital in Rochester. And it would be great for his morale, among other things, to be able to visit regularly with family, which would be much easier in a medium, rather than a supermax, and also geographically close. So that’s one thing, but that’s, essentially, the process with the BOP, and there’s not a lot that people can do ordinarily. Then there’s postings on… Leonard Peltier has Facebook. The national office maintains a Facebook, sends out newsletters, and so forth.
The other piece is he’s got a federal judge who was appointed by Obama, and then resigned over minimum sentencing standards and such as that. They had taken discretion away. He couldn’t buy it, so he stood down. He’s been working in prisoner-related, prisoner support activities ever since. His name is Kevin Sharp. He’s in Tennessee. I’m not sure where, but I think in Memphis. In any case, he is in Tennessee and he is working for a commutation.
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Ward Churchill: He’s got no clear path for appellate purposes to appeal to get the conviction overturned, which is what should happen… But should… And five bucks will get you coffee at Starbucks.
Eddie Conway: Okay, let me ask you this. You might not know the answer to this because it’s unclear to me, but the Federal Bureau of Prison Guidelines dictates that a prisoner shouldn’t be any more than 500 miles away from his family and from the place in which he was arrested, or so on. It seems like if he’s in Florida and that happened up in Dakotas–
Ward Churchill: Right.
Eddie Conway: …That seems like a couple of thousand miles. Is there some way that can be challenged?
Ward Churchill: Well, there’s all sorts of little loopholes and discretionary areas, and so forth. I don’t think Leonard has ever been within 500 miles of location. It would have to be Denver, the federal prison facility.
Eddie Conway: Florence, Colorado.
Ward Churchill: No, there’s one in Denver that’s a lower security thing.
Eddie Conway: Oh, okay.
Ward Churchill: Florence was built after Leonard went in.
Eddie Conway: Okay.
Ward Churchill: Florence, I suppose, would be an option, but we’re not looking to get him transferred from supermax to an even more supermax, okay? And Florence is top of the heap. But, I mean, he was sent straight to Marion. He’s been in Leavenworth. He’s been in Lompoc. He’s been in Louisburg, and now he’s in Coleman. Coleman may be the furthest away of all of them. Well, possibly the exception of Lompoc, but none of them have been remotely within the range you’re talking about. Those are for normal prisoners, but obviously he’s not a normal prisoner.
And, for that matter, you could look at Jamil Al-Amin, H. Rap Brown, who’s in Arizona. He lives here. I go to within about 20 miles of that facility on a reasonably regular basis because I got family there and I can testify it’s a long drive. It’s a long way for family to have to go to make a visit, and everything else.
So that’s not a case unique to Leonard, but it is somewhat predictable in case of people who are incarcerated for political reasons.
Eddie Conway: Political prisoners.
Ward Churchill: Basically, yes.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, Ward Churchill, thanks for joining me and giving us this update.
Ward Churchill: My pleasure, I guess. Maybe pleasure’s not the right word, given what we’re talking about, but I very much appreciate the opportunity to bring people up to date on this.
Eddie Conway: Okay. All right.
And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.