Native activist Leonard Peltier denied parole in controversial FBI killings case

The U.S. Parole Commission has denied a request for parole from Native American activist Leonard Peltier in his conviction for the 1975 killing of two FBI agents, likely closing the door on his chances of freedom absent a presidential commutation.

Peltier was convicted following a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota between the FBI and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams entered the reservation seeking to execute a warrant for another man suspected in the theft of a pair of boots, leading to a firefight involving some 30 people. Peltier, the only person convicted in connection with the incident, was sentenced to two life terms. The shootout occurred during a period of heightened tensions between the FBI and the AIM, which alleged the bureau was deliberately inflaming conditions on the reservation by backing controversial tribal Chair Richard Wilson.

A Parole Commission spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that Peltier will next be eligible for a hearing in 2026.

Peltier’s supporters have argued he was convicted on the basis of coerced testimony and that evidence in his favor was withheld, pointing to a key witness who claimed to be his girlfriend but would later admit they did not know one another. Two of Peltier’s fellow activists were also charged in the killings but were acquitted after trials in which the same exculpatory evidence excluded from Peltier’s was allowed. His lawyers have also argued the FBI suppressed a ballistics report indicating Peltier’s gun did not fire the bullets that killed Coler and Williams. Peltier has maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment.

The FBI has consistently opposed Peltier’s release, with Director Christopher Wray calling him a “remorseless killer.” The FBI Agents Association (FBIAA) praised the commission’s decision in a statement Tuesday.

“The brutal murders of Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams remain a deep wound for the FBI family, and Peltier’s lack of remorse only compounds the tragedy,” FBIAA President Natalie Bara said in a statement. “We believe this decision upholds justice for our fallen colleagues and their families.”

Peltier, who is 79 years old, was previously denied parole in 2009, and was previously denied clemency by Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump. His age, in combination with numerous health problems including multiple bouts with COVID, means he will likely only see freedom if President Biden takes action.

“Continuing to keep Leonard Peltier locked behind bars is a human rights travesty. President Biden should grant him clemency and release him immediately,” Amnesty International USA Executive Director Paul O’Brien said in a statement. “Not only are there ongoing, unresolved concerns about the fairness of his trial, he has spent nearly 50 years in prison, is approaching 80 years old, and suffers from several chronic health problems.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Az.), a vocal congressional proponent of Peltier’s release, said in a statement “the Commission had the opportunity to take a small step toward rectifying a decades-long injustice against Mr. Peltier, but incomprehensibly, they have opted against it.”

“I extend my deepest condolences to him, his family, and his loved ones who are all being denied the peace and time together they deserve,” he added. “As his health continues to wane, he should be in the care of his community, not the cruelty of confinement.”

Updated at 3:26 p.m.

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