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Ignoring Justice

Michael J. Borucke

A lot of people have been talking about the Clinton pardons.

Wait, no they haven’t. It’s the media that’s been discussing pardons.

The clamor about the pardons has been so deafening you’d think there was nothing else going on in the nation, at least not as important as the soap opera that is Bill Clinton’s personal life. His brother gets pardoned after being sentenced for dealing cocaine, only to be arrested again for DUI. His lawyer friend has an imprisoned friend whose wife contributes money ... and on and on.

And so I’m wondering, who cares? They’re just a bunch of people I’ll never meet. Besides, the president’s power is absolute in pardoning and commuting sentences.

So what the hell will all this investigation serve to accomplish? Is this just another attempt by the Republicans to discredit Clinton’s reputation with something utterly inane? Is there some aspect of justice here being decided? Are these pardons any different than the drug dealers Bush Sr. pardoned or the contra suppliers Reagan pardoned? Do the politicians believe the public will feel satisfied when and if they should revoke Clinton’s pardons?

If anyone, politicians or press, were honestly in search of justice, they might have focused a bit more on the case of Native American activist Leonard Peltier. For 25 years, Peltier has been serving two consecutive life sentences in Leavenworth Penitentiary for a crime he insists -- and the government acknowledges -- that he did not commit. But instead of discussing the merits of 56-year-old Peltier’s imprisonment, the press ignores him.

In June 1975, traditionalist members of the Oglala Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota were under harassment by tribal chairman Dick Wilson and the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON). The traditionalist members finally asked for outside help from the American Indian Movement, and members of AIM (Peltier included) went to the reservation. Unbeknownst to the Oglala Sioux or members of AIM, FBI agents had begun surveillance of the reservation weeks before, and on June 26 two agents were on the reservation without warrants. Shots were exchanged between members of AIM and the FBI agents, resulting in the deaths of the two agents and one Native American. Four members of AIM were arrested for the murders of the FBI agents; all but Peltier were later released on grounds of self-defense. Peltier fled to Canada -- he didn’t believe he would get a fair trial in the United States -- but was extradited to the United States and brought to trial in 1976. Throughout his trial and subsequent imprisonment Peltier has maintained his innocence. The District Court of Appeals and the prosecution has admitted that there is no hard evidence that linked Peltier to the murders.

The affidavits used to extradite Peltier were illegally obtained. The witness whose testimony was used to obtain the affidavits later said she was coerced into giving false testimony, yet the case against Peltier rested largely on these affidavits. The documents include testimony from Myrtle Poor Bear, a native American woman with known mental problems, who said she saw Peltier shoot the FBI agents at point blank range. During the trial, the prosecution learned that Myrtle’s sister was going to testify on Peltier’s behalf, saying that she and Myrtle were on their way to the store when they heard shots fired on the reservation. Peltier claims never having seen Myrtle before the trial.

The growing campaign to free Peltier has nearly been silenced in the national media, whereas it has gathered much attention internationally. Among those who have supported the release of Leonard Peltier are Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa.

No comment in the press about the other casualty of the Pine Ridge incident, a Native American man. No investigation of the 60 traditionalist Oglala Sioux who were slain between 1973 and 1976. No indictment of the federal bureau that supplied the weapons to tribal chairman Dick Wilson. None of these issues are spoken of when talking of the Pine Ridge incident.

The only articles I found regarding Leonard Peltier’s case in the American press were those reporting on a parade organized and attended by FBI agents in black trenchcoats. Coming as it did so close to January 20, this parade was not a march for justice; it was meant to scare Clinton into denying clemency to Peltier. And it worked.

Clinton pardoned friends, relatives, and rich people, but not Leonard Peltier. This was not for a lack of knowledge; Clinton got the message to free Peltier when he was in Boston speaking at Northeastern in January. Protesters outside the building were holding signs Clinton couldn’t have missed. Before the election, Clinton was asked about Peltier on a radio talk show called “Democracy Now,” and said that he would “look into it,” and “give it every consideration.”

Now with George W. Bush in charge and the next parole hearing set for 2008, it is very unlikely that Peltier will gain his freedom with the help of the system that has kept him imprisoned for the past 25 years. Instead, it will take massive grassroots pressure to get Peltier out.