More than 200 Indigenous artists and Hollywood celebrities pleaded with President Joe Biden on Thursday to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier, the ailing 78-year-old Native American rights activist whom the U.S. government put in prison 47 years ago after a trial rife with misconduct, lies and racism.
“We write to you today in support of Leonard Peltier’s petition for executive clemency and urge you to expeditiously commute the remainder of his sentence,” reads the letter to the president led by six Indigenous actors, writers and fashion professionals. “Nothing is more emblematic of the mistreatment of American Indians and the uneven hand of the criminal justice system than the handling of his case by the federal government.”
The letter, first obtained by HuffPost, warns that Peltier “is elderly and in failing health, and we fear he will not ever make it back to his homelands” at Turtle Mountain in North Dakota.
“Leonard is not only a symbol of Indigenous pride, he is also our relative. And his homecoming is imperative to our collective healing,” they added.
The letter was spearheaded by Indigenous artists Dallas Goldtooth, Bird Runningwater, Jana Schmieding, Sierra Teller Ornelas, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Bethany Yellowtail. Some of the non-Indigenous allies who signed the letter include actors and artists Mark Ruffalo, Ani DiFranco, Ed Helms, America Ferrera, Jackson Browne, Michael Moore, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr, Tanya Tucker and Steven Van Zandt.
Here’s a copy of their letter:
Many consider Peltier 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 the U.S. government never had evidence that Peltier committed a crime, and the level of misconduct that went on in his trial is baffling: Prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence. The FBI threatened and coerced witnesses into lying. A juror admitted she was biased against Peltier’s race on the second day of the trial but was allowed to stay on anyway. His co-defendants were acquitted on self-defense grounds, but Peltier was singled out for different treatment.
It didn’t get any fairer once he was in prison. His decadeslong parole process has been so problematic that United Nations legal experts recently 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 details have emerged underscoring how problematic Peltier’s conviction and imprisonment have been. 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 U.S. Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over Peltier’s 1986 appeal, later called for commuting his sentence, saying his trial was unjust and that “a healing process must begin.”
Advocates for Peltier’s freedom over the years have included Native American elected officials, celebrities like Steven Van Zandt, international human rights leaders like Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela, and Amnesty International, a group that typically fights human rights abuses against people outside of the United States.
“President Biden should free Leonard Peltier! 47 years of injustice – @POTUS the world calls on you to #FreeLeonardPeltier,” Amnesty International tweeted Thursday.
The letter from Indigenous artists comes a day after seven U.S. senators appealed to the president to show mercy and grant clemency to Peltier.
“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 the letter 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.).
The plea from Indigenous artists also follows Biden addressing tribal leaders at his much-heralded White House Tribal Nations Summit. During the event, the president ticked off all that he’s done for Indian Country, but noticeably said nothing about Peltier’s ongoing imprisonment.
A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Indigenous artists’ letter or on whether Biden is considering clemency for Peltier.