President Biden, listen to Indigenous voices: Free Leonard Peltier

As the son of a law enforcement officer who was killed in the line of duty, I do not take the writing of this lightly. My father, Leslie Macarro, died in 1988 when I was 24 years old, and I know the depths of grief a family bears with the loss of a loved one. 

I have also been a Tribal leader for more than 30 years and currently serve as the 1st Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the United States. This background has given me a perspective on the equitable application of justice that compels me to urge President Biden to immediately grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier or support his petition for compassionate release. 

Leonard Peltier, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (ND), is in his 48th year of imprisonment. He is serving two life sentences for aiding and abetting in the deaths of two FBI agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota in 1975 – a case where his co-defendants, principally charged with the crime, were found not guilty on grounds of self-defense. Mr. Peltier will be 79 years old on September 12, 2023 – now a frail and elderly man who continues to serve out his sentence at the maximum-security facility at the United States Penitentiary – Coleman, in central Florida. Imprisoned at the age of 32, his conviction is turning into a de facto death sentence.

Related: SCNG opinion editor Sal Rodriguez on Leonard Peltier 

 Serious questions about the fairness of his trial have been raised, including clear due process violations and evidence of racial prejudice by one of his jurors. The FBI investigators on the case, moreover, intimidated witnesses, coerced false testimony, and withheld evidence.

In fact, in recent years, several officials involved in prosecuting Leonard Peltier’s case have come forward in support of his release, noting the prosecutorial misconduct and constitutional violations that led to his conviction. Gerald Heaney, the judge who presided over Mr. Peltier’s 1986 appeal in the Eighth Circuit, has called for his release and former United States Attorney James Reynolds, whose office handled the prosecution and appeal of Peltier’s case, has called for the commutation of the remainder of his sentence and observed that, “his conviction and continued incarceration is a testament to a time and a system of justice that no longer has a place in our society.”

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention specifically noted the anti-Indigenous bias surrounding Peltier’s detention, stating simply that he “continues to be detained because he is Native American. 

Retired FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, who served with prosecutors and agents directly involved in Mr. Peltier’s case, wrote President Biden last December and noted the impacts and role the “long-standing horribly wrongful oppressive treatment of Indians in the U.S.” played in Peltier’s case and, critically, the “FBI Family vendetta” behind the agency’s opposition to clemency.

Peltier’s release is no doubt a politically sensitive one for any president.

For decades, the FBI has campaigned to keep him behind bars. But President Biden has pledged that racial justice would be a core pillar of his domestic agenda, including a comprehensive overhaul to the clemency process to redress historical inequities in the criminal justice system. The President further underscored his commitment to equal rights for Indigenous communities. And as he ramps up his visits on the campaign trail, rest assured that our communities will be asking him about his commitment to mend the relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government.

On February 14, 2022, the NCAI adopted a resolution for the third time in its history in support of Leonard Peltier’s release. Mr. President, I urge you to listen to the voices from Indian Country, joined by human rights leaders around the world, and free Leonard Peltier.

Mark Macarro is the 1st Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Washington, DC. He is also the duly elected Tribal Chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in Southern California.

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