Burchett asks clemency for Leonard Peltier

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

One Republican has joined 32 Democrats in requesting President Joe Biden to grant clemency or compassionate release for a man convicted of killing two FBI agents in 1975.

Yes, it’s East Tennessee’s own Rep. Tim Burchett, who has joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, The Squad (Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan) and others in seeking the release of Leonard Peltier.

It’s a crime that happened before most of them were born (except Bernie, of course).

First with the story (to my knowledge) was Jennifer Bendery, writing Oct. 6, 2023, in HuffPost. The letter also is dated Oct. 6. Bendery says it’s the fourth such letter to Biden since he took office. The signatures increase each time, but Burchett is the first Republican to sign on.

His office declined to comment to Bendery. We didn’t ask. It is what it is.

Leonard Peltier mug shot, 1972

Who is Leonard Peltier?

Leonard Peltier was 31 in 1975, already the father of nine (two adopted) who had brushes with the law and was active in the American Indian Movement (AIM). He admits involvement in the June 26, 1975, shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, but says he never killed the agents. A jury thought otherwise.

The shootout

Tensions were high as expressed by a 1973 confrontation at Wounded Knee, when AIM had seized the town and held it 71 days before it was retaken by U.S. agents.

The 1975 situation began when FBI Special Agents Ronald Arthur Williams and Jack Ross Coler entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to search for a young man, Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for questioning in the recent assault of two ranch hands and the theft of a pair of boots.

Instead, the agents followed a Chevy van carrying Peltier and two others. The van pulled into the Jumping Bull Ranch where AIM operatives had permission to camp. The men exited the van and began firing at the two agents. Peltier had an AR-15 rifle.

The agents climbed into Coler’s vehicle and radioed for help. When others responded, they, too, came under gunfire. Williams and Coler died within 10 minutes of the first shots, both suffered head wounds. In all, 125 bullet holes were found in the agents’ vehicles, many from an AR-15. Agent Williams’ car was stripped and four guns belonging to the agents were stolen.

Peltier’s trial was held in Fargo, North Dakota. Two other defendants had been acquitted in an earlier trial after their attorneys made a case for self-defense. But the jurors in Peltier’s trial were told that the agents were basically executed, killed by close-range shots to their heads, when they were already defenseless due to previous gunshot wounds.

Peltier could not sustain a self-defense argument that might have resulted in an acquittal, according to Wikipedia. The jury was also shown autopsy and crime scene photographs of the agents. In April 1977, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

Support for clemency

Peltier has been in prison for 48 years now. He is 79 and in failing health. With everybody from the United Nations to Amnesty International to the National Lawyers Guild and the American Association of Jurists in support of his release, no one has overturned his conviction on appeal. That leaves clemency as his only hope of leaving jail. People from Mother Teresa to Nelson Mandela to the 14th Dalai Lama have requested clemency.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump had official requests but chose not to grant executive clemency. There is no reason to think Biden will either. Peltier has declared himself a political prisoner and asked supporters to plant a tree for him.

Burchett can plant his tree at the Midway Business Park. It will be the only living thing there.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.


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