by Nicholas Wilson
"I'm in pain,
I'm in pain, I'm in pain.
Man, I ain't joking brother. This is really killing me," Leonard Peltier
moaned recently to spokesperson Bobby Castillo by telephone. Castillo,
who has known Peltier for two decades, was alarmed. It was completely unlike
his friend to complain.
Leonard Peltier, Native American activist and America's best known political prisoner, is telling friends that prison red tape prevents him from getting urgently needed medical help for complications that developed after unsuccessful jaw surgery in a prison hospital.
"Malicious" is how Peltier describes the treatment he received at the federal prison medical center in Springfield, Missouri, including two jaw surgeries and repeated very high doses of radiation. Not only was the treatment unsuccessful, but complications have made his condition even worse than before.
Now in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, he is in constantly increasing pain and can't open his jaws to eat or chew. He must take in food through a gap left by missing teeth, then mash his food with his tongue before swallowing. Prison authorities refuse to run his meals through a blender, Castillo says.
Peltier has asked to be treated by famed Mayo Clinic surgeon Dr. Eugene Keller, who has reviewed Peltier's medical records and agreed to treat him at a federal prison facility near the Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
But before Peltier can receive any further medical treatment, the Bureau of Prisons requires him to sign a release which allows them to send him wherever they choose.
They have told him they may send him back to Springfield, and he is afraid he'll be killed, according to Castillo.
"It's like Catch-22," Castillo said. "If he doesn't sign the release he gets no medical treatment. If he does sign, the treatment he gets may be worse than none."
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, one of Peltier's lawyers, told the Monitor on June 18 that Peltier's medical condition is very serious and could be fatal. "His situation is highly conducive to that," Clark said. Asked if he planned legal action to get Peltier to the Mayo Clinic, Clark replied, "Well, that could be a fight. You try to negotiate it out because there are so many loopholes. They could claim that they have offered treatment and he rejected it." But, he said, "All they have to do is say they'll send him to Rochester and he'll sign the release."
In a memo earlier this week, Clark wrote, "Prisoners have the right to petition for care by the doctor of their choice if they are not provided the accepted standard of care. That certainly applies to this case, as the Springfield facility staff stated they are unable to provide the required care for Leonard." This last was newly learned information.
Clark's memo also said Peltier is unable to open his mouth to receive urgently needed care for two abscessed teeth, putting him in danger of potentially fatal septicemia, infection spreading through the blood stream to vital organs such as the heart.
his case has been the subject
of movies and books, Peltier's story is better known abroad than in his
own country. The Belgian Parliament and the new European Parliament have
recently passed resolutions supporting Peltier's demand for justice. Amnesty
International is reinvestigating the case and may take a stand soon, and
the government of the People's Republic of China -- under growing international
pressure for its own political prisoners -- has recently asked the Leonard
Peltier Defense Committee for information.
Peltier has been a federal prisoner 22 years, sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. He denies any guilt and FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that exonerating evidence was withheld by the government during his trial.
The files also show that the American Indian Movement (AIM) was the target of a covert FBI COINTELPRO-style operation to disrupt and neutralize it. Although 12,000 pages of the RESMURS (FBI code for Reservation Murders) files were released under the FOIA request, an additional 5,000 pages were withheld on the basis that revealing them would endanger "national security." Castillo suspects there was federal infiltration of Peltier's legal team, as was revealed in the case of Geronimo JiJaga Pratt, the former Black Panther framed for murder whose conviction was recently overturned.
In the two years prior the fatal 1975 incident, some 40 murders had taken place on the reservation at the hands of a goon squad covertly armed and financed by the FBI and controlled by Oglala Tribal Chairman Richard Wilson. Elders who wanted to pursue their traditional culture called on AIM to send people to protect them from Wilson's armed thugs, and Peltier was one of the AIM activists who responded to that call for help.
On June 26, 1975 two FBI agents pursued a red pickup onto the reservation. It's not clear who fired first, but the agents were first wounded in an exchange of gunfire, then finished off at close range. (A young AIM activist was also killed in the shootout, but no one was ever charged.)
Three other AIM activists were later indicted along with Peltier for the FBI slayings. Two were tried first and acquitted on the basis of self-defense by all-white Iowa juries. Within weeks, the government dropped charges against the third activist.
Peter Matthiessen's book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, quotes a federal document showing that the decision to drop charges was made at a meeting including FBI Director Clarence Kelley, COINTELPRO architect Richard G. Held, and U.S. Attorney Evan Hultman, among others. Their stated reason was "so that the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Peltier." Peltier was their last chance to convict someone for the slayings.
authorities used false witness
statements against him to obtain his extradition from Canada, a fact confirmed
in later appeal hearings. After studying the acquittal in the Iowa trials
to learn from mistakes, prosecutor Hultman was able to develop a winning
strategy. He somehow managed to get the judge who presided over the first
trial removed from hearing Peltier's case, as was scheduled.
The new judge, Nixon-appointee Paul Benson, a former North Dakota Attorney General, moved the trial to his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, known for anti-Indian sentiment. Judge Benson showed bias in his judicial discretion, granting most prosecution motions and rejecting those of the defense. He blocked the defense from putting on evidence of FBI coercion of and deals with witnesses, and fabrication and suppression of evidence.
Judge Benson ruled that no mention could be made of the evidence in the first trial, which acquitted the other two activists. Thus the prosecution was able to suppress evidence that an FBI agent reported the red pickup leaving the scene immediately after the shootings. This was the truck which the two slain agents had followed onto the site, and it had driven down to where the agents were finished off at close range. No evidence connected Peltier to the red pickup. But the judge allowed none of this exonerating evidence in Peltier's trial. When the jury voted guilty, Judge Benson gave him the maximum sentence then allowed for murder.
early eighties, a new flurry of
activity began on the case:
The appeals court also denied a subsequent petition for a rehearing en banc, before all the judges of the appeals court. In October 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thereby ending Peltier's judicial remedies in the U.S. Courts.
the Monitor that he had just
learned that Peltier received written notice of the official denial of
his parole. Clark commented, "It's clearly wrong. A little over two years
ago the hearing officer recommended immediate parole." Asked what basis
the Parole Commission cited for rejecting that, Clark explained that the
Commission said the hearing officer exceeded his authority by reviewing
evidence all the way back to the trial, and concluded that the government
had not proved Peltier had killed the two agents. The examiner was only
supposed to consider new evidence which had come up since the Commission's
Clark promised to "appeal with a full scale attack on the proceedings," and if there is an adverse decision by the Parole Commission, "it will be appealed to federal courts with a comprehensive attack on the ruling in Leonard's case and the legality of the Parole Commission as it now functions."
Clark commented that the Peltier and other reservation murders cases were "miserably mishandled (by the government), but that's probably the smaller part of the injustice. The presence and role of the FBI from the very beginning was wrongfully motivated and wrongfully carried out. If you look at all the evidence there can be no question that the FBI carried out an extensive and violent covert operation targeting AIM. It included arming and funding goons in an effort to control the reservation by fear and force. That was a direct contributing factor in the great number of the more than 40 murders in the two years between the Wounded Knee incident and Leonard's conflict."
Noted San Francisco trial lawyer J. Tony Serra confirmed to the Monitor recently that he agreed to represent Peltier if he can get a new trial. Regular Monitor readers will immediately recognize Serra as an attorney with a good track record representing Native Americans accused of killing cops. Last year he helped get "Bear" Lincoln acquitted of murdering a Mendocino County deputy sheriff. Earlier, Serra won a new trial and an acquittal for Patrick "Hooty" Croy, who had been on death row for ten years for the killing of a Shasta County deputy. Serra was instrumental last year in getting Norma Jean Croy released from prison where she was sentenced for the same incident as her brother.
Bobby Castillo points out that South
African President "Nelson Mandela was not freed from his decades as a political
prisoner by any legal action taken through the South African court system."
Rather it was sustained political pressure and economic sanctions which
ultimately led to the overthrow of apartheid and the reversal of fortune
Peltier supporters are holding a June 27 Washington, D.C., rally to mark the anniversary of the shootout at Pine Ridge and call for Peltier's release. A major front in the effort to free Peltier is a petition to President Clinton for a pardon. Although such requests are normally decided within several months to a year, Peltier's request has languished on Clinton's desk during his whole term of office. Clark points out that the only opposition to a pardon comes from the FBI -- "But, of course, they are formidable."
His supporters urge people to write the President in support of a pardon, and if possible to come to the rally. In a letter they write, "We are currently asking supporters to step up the fight for his release more than ever. Mention Leonard's health whenever writing to public officials and speaking on his behalf. Needless to say Leonard's suffering is a form of cruel and unusual punishment for a crime which he did not commit."
(A new LPDC site is under construction at http://www.freeleonardpeltier.com/)
LPDC, P.O. Box 583, Lawrence KS 66044, phone 785-842-5774
Investigative journalist Peter Matthiesen's book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" explores the Peltier case in depth.
The 1991 documentary film "Incident at Oglala," produced by actor Robert Redford, looks into the case with interviews of both sides.
Albion Monitor June 19, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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