Seven senators on Tuesday urgently appealed to President Joe Biden to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier, the ailing 78-year-old Native American rights activist whom the U.S. government put in prison 46 years ago after a trial riddled with misconduct and racism.
“Mr. Peltier’s continued imprisonment defies the promises of justice, and the power to exercise mercy in this case lies solely within your discretion,” reads a letter to Biden from Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Tina Smith (Minn.).
“Mr. Peltier has spent more than half of his life behind bars,” the senators said. “We commend the steps that your administration has taken to right past wrongs of our government’s treatment of Native Americans, particularly through [Interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland’s leadership and her Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. Furthermore, your administration has demonstrated a laudable commitment to upholding the core American values of liberty and justice, and rectifying inequities in the criminal justice system.”
“Consistent with these actions, we urge you to grant clemency to Mr. Peltier by commuting the remainder of his sentence,” they conclude.
A copy of the letter was also sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Elizabeth Oyer, the pardon attorney at the Justice Department.
Here’s a copy of the senators’ letter, first obtained by HuffPost.
Peltier is considered by many to be America’s longest-serving political prisoner. He’s been in prison since 1975, when the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office convicted him of murdering two FBI agents during a shootout on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
But they never had evidence that he committed a crime, and the level of misconduct that took place in his trial is baffling: Prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying. All of his co-defendants were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. A juror admitted she was biased against Peltier’s race on the second day of the trial but was allowed to remain on the panel.
Beyond that, his decades-long parole process has been so problematic that United Nations legal experts reviewed his case and over the summer called on Biden to release him immediately. The working group concluded in a damning 17-page legal opinion: “Mr. Peltier continues to be detained because he is Native American.”
The more time that’s gone by, the more people have demanded Peltier’s release. Advocates for his freedom have included Native American elected officials, celebrities like Steven Van Zandt, international human rights leaders like Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela, Amnesty International, and even some of the same people who helped put him in prison in the first place.
In an extraordinary letter to Biden last year, James Reynolds, the U.S. attorney who oversaw Peltier’s prosecution on appeal, wrote, “I write today from a position rare for a former prosecutor: to beseech you to commute the sentence of a man who I helped put behind bars.” And the late Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over Peltier’s 1986 appeal, later called for commuting his sentence, saying his trial was unjust and “a healing process must begin.”
Tuesday’s letter marks the first time that some senators have publicly pressured Biden to release Peltier. Over the last year, Hirono, Leahy, Sanders and Schatz have individually urged the president to grant clemency to him. But Warren, Markey and Smith just added their names to the cause.
A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the appeal from Democratic senators or, more broadly, on whether Biden is considering clemency for Peltier.