The Man Whom Clinton Should Have Pardoned

The Man Whom Clinton Should Have Pardoned
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Those who apologize for President Bush's recent commutation of "Scooter" Libby like to compare the Bush record to his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

In the closing hours of his presidency, Clinton issued 140 pardons. A few went to some rather unsavory characters such as financier Marc Rich, who was on the FBI's "Most Wanted List" for many years. But the Bush commutation reminded me not of who Clinton pardoned but rather whom he failed to pardon -- Leonard Peltier.

Peltier, a Sioux-Ojibwa Indian, was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the 1975 killing of two FBI agents during a range war on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reserve near Wounded Knee.

No one questions whether Peltier was present when the FBI agents were killed. What remains a mystery is how the evidence presented led to Peltier's conviction. To this day, there are no known witnesses to the shootings.

Murder charges were brought against Peltier along with Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, who were also present when the agents were murdered. Butler and Robideau stood trial separately from Peltier, who had fled to Canada, convinced he never would receive a fair trial in the United States.

At the trial of Butler and Robideau, a key prosecution witness admitted he was threatened by the FBI and changed his testimony upon the agents' instructions to support the government's position.

The jury found both men not guilty, citing no evidence to link the defendants to the fatal shots. Moreover, the exchange of gunfire from a distance was deemed an act of self-defense.
Judge Gerald Heaney of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, in his 1991 letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, wrote:
"The United States government overreacted at Wounded Knee. Instead of carefully considering the legitimate grievances of the Native Americans, the response was essentially a military one, which, culminated in the deadly firefight on June 26, 1975." He added, "The United States government must share responsibility with the Native Americans for the firefight."

In Heaney's opinion, the government's role could be considered a mitigating circumstance for the incident. As a result, he recommended clemency/commutation of Peltier as part of the healing process.

Additional FBI documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act, make it clear that Peltier is a victim of government revenge.

Critical ballistic information reflecting Peltier's innocence was withheld from the defense team, making a fair trial impossible. FBI ballistic expert Evan Hodge testified that he was unable to perform the best test, a firing pin test, on certain casings found near the agents' car because the rifle in question was damaged in a fire. Instead, he stated that he had conducted an extractor mark test and found a match between the casing and weapon.

But in October 1975 a firing pin ballistic test had been performed on the rifle, and the results were clearly negative. In short, the fatal bullets did not come from Peltier's weapon. The jury never heard these crucial issues.

Amnesty International considers Peltier a prisoner of conscience -- a distinction not even granted to Nelson Mandela, who is among those calling for Peltier's release. In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton hinted he would consider pardoning Peltier. Fifteen years later, nothing has changed.

Speculation abounds as to why Clinton reneged on pardoning Peltier. It caused a rift between the Clintons and Hollywood mogul and longtime supporter David Geffen, now backing Barack Obama for president. Whatever Clinton's reasoning, it seem the facts of the case did not play a substantial role.

At 59 and in poor health, Peltier seems destined to die in jail. It is a sad commentary when a president pardons a man on the FBI's Most Wanted List in lieu of someone convicted largely on retribution and perjury.

While it is unlikely that President Bush will pardon Peltier, Clinton could have, but he didn't have time. He was busy doing 140 more important things before leaving office.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at or leave a message at (510) 208-6417.

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