The Magazine

The Unpardonable Leonard Peltier

Why does the Left want to release the murderer of two FBI agents?

Dec 20, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 14 • By MARK TOOLEY
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DURING THE COLD WAR, Soviet propagandists and Western "progressives" routinely charged that the United States had "political prisoners" of its own: "freedom fighters" locked up by the Justice Department for "crimes of conscience." The complaint has lost steam in recent years. There is no longer a Cold War to animate it. And many of the most celebrated American "political prisoners" of the 1960s and 1970s simply aren't prisoners any more.

One such Cold War-era case remains alive, however. Millions of Soviet citizens once "spontaneously" signed petitions demanding the release of Leonard Peltier, a mid-1970s American Indian Movement (AIM) gunman serving a life sentence for murder. The Russians have since forgotten about the matter. But an astonishing number of Western would-be do-gooders -- Amnesty International, the European Parliament, rock bands, the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood celebrities like Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon -- have refused to let it drop. Indeed, their efforts have lately intensified, even as their claim that Peltier is innocent has never seemed weaker.

November was "Freedom Month for Leonard Peltier" in the nation's capital, a series of events organized by his defense committee. Using the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill as their headquarters, these activists demonstrated in front of the White House and lobbied congressional offices on behalf of their imprisoned hero. Peltier, they insisted, is only the most recent major victim of a centuries-long U.S. assault on Native Americans.

"Leonard Peltier is typical of the abuse of other native people," said Jennifer Harbury at a Lafayette Park rally a few weeks ago. Harbury directs a "human rights" group in California and has waged a long battle to implicate the Guatemalan government in the death of her husband, who was a leftist guerrilla in that country. Peltier "is a symbol of the campaigns of oppression" waged by white people throughout the Americas, she announced. "It seems the federal government is using this as an example of what could happen to us if we are out of line," added Coki Tree Spirit, another pro-Peltier activist.

Peltier himself addressed the Lafayette Park rally with a recorded message. "I still cannot understand that with the millions of people around the world demanding my freedom the government can still ignore it."

Maybe the fact that he is guilty has something to do with it.

On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents, 28-year-old Jack Coler and 27-year-old Ronald Williams, were on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, searching for a torture and robbery suspect named Jimmy Eagle. They spotted a vehicle matching the description of Eagle's van and followed it into a pasture near where Peltier and other AIM members were residing. Then, Williams called in a report that the van had stopped on a rise and that its occupants had emerged with rifles and appeared ready to shoot. The agents were trapped in their cars in an open field, armed only with service revolvers and a single rifle in Coler's trunk.

Williams was hit first, in the arm and side. Coler seems to have crawled to the back of his car for his rifle, but he got off only a single shot before his arm was nearly severed by return fire. Despite his own wound, Williams managed to apply a tourniquet to his colleague. But Coler was unconscious, and, realizing further resistance was futile, Williams apparently attempted to surrender. The two agents had managed to get off only five shots. Their cars had been hit at least 125 times by long-range rifles, semiautomatics, and an AR-15 assault rifle.

Some number of gunmen -- dozens of Peltier's fellow militants may have joined the battle from a nearby camp -- then walked down the rise toward the FBI agents. Williams held up a hand in front of the executioner's gun; a bullet blew off three of his fingers and the back of his skull. Coler was shot in the head and throat from less than two feet away.

An FBI rescue party killed one AIM suspect and captured another but the rest initially eluded them. A witness at the scene identified Peltier as the driver of the van Williams and Coler had been following, and his thumbprint was found inside. In November 1975, an Oregon state trooper stopped a vehicle that Peltier was driving. Peltier responded with gunfire and escaped into the woods. He left behind Agent Coler's revolver -- again, with Peltier's incriminating thumbprint on it -- along with eight other guns, a collection of hand grenades, and 350 pounds of dynamite.