Ranking Member Grijalva Leads Bipartisan, Bicameral 33-Member Letter Requesting Clemency for Indigenous Activist Leonard Peltier
Washington, D.C. – In advance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, Oct. 9, House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) today led a bipartisan, bicameral letter signed by 33 members of Congress to President Biden requesting clemency or compassionate release for renowned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who has been imprisoned for nearly 50 years. The lawmakers wrote, in part:
“As Members of Congress, we sign this letter with a deep commitment to the crucial role we play in upholding justice for all Americans – and to also hold our government accountable when we see a case of injustice, as demonstrated by the long incarceration of Leonard Peltier. We stand with the Tribal Nations of the United States, Indigenous voices worldwide, and leading voices on human rights and criminal justice around the globe in support of Mr. Peltier’s release.”
Mr. Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, is currently serving two life sentences after being arrested under questionable circumstances for the 1975 killings of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
His conviction followed a trial marked by procedural errors and a lack of evidence. As the authors note, “Over the course of his incarceration, particularly in recent years, key figures involved in Mr. Peltier’s prosecution have stepped forward to underscore the constitutional violations and prosecutorial misconduct that took place during the investigation and trial that led to his conviction.”
Civil rights leaders across America and around the world, from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama to Rev. Jesse Jackson, have condemned the verdict as a miscarriage of justice—a miscarriage all too familiar to Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities.
Peltier is now 79 years-old and in deteriorating health, suffering from diabetes and hypertension, alongside other health issues. He has contracted COVID-19 several times throughout his incarceration.
CLICK HERE for the full letter. Full text can also be found below this release.
Peltier was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of two FBI agents in a June 26, 1975, shooting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment and has been imprisoned since 1977. He remains incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida.
Peltier's conviction has been widely criticized for its unfairness. There is serious evidence that he was wrongfully convicted; key evidence was withheld, witnesses were coerced, and critical ballistics information was misrepresented.
Mr. Peltier was an active member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) prior to his arrest and remains engaged in activism. AIM is a grassroots movement founded in the late 1960s to organize activism around issues of systemic poverty, discrimination, and police brutality against American Indians. At the time, AIM was under deep scrutiny by the U.S. government.
Ranking Member Grijalva has previously called on President Biden and the U.S. Department of Justice to grant Mr. Peltier clemency – in October 2021 and February 2022. Then-Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Grijalva also spoke on the phone with Peltier, who described harsh and often inhumane conditions in federal detention, enduring long periods in solitary confinement and recently experiencing bouts of COVID-19 and related difficulties in receiving adequate medical care.
Full Text of Letter
Dear President Biden:
We are writing to you regarding the nearly five-decade imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. Now, more than ever, bedrock principles of justice warrant your consideration of a grant of executive clemency or support of compassionate release at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist and citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians (ND), is now in his 48th year of incarceration. He is 79 years old and in failing health. Mr. Peltier is serving two life sentences in a maximum-security federal prison for aiding and abetting in a case where his co-defendants were found not guilty on the grounds of self-defense.
Over the course of his incarceration, particularly in recent years, key figures involved in Mr. Peltier’s prosecution have stepped forward to underscore the constitutional violations and prosecutorial misconduct that took place during the investigation and trial that led to his conviction. Gerald Heaney, the judge who presided over Mr. Peltier’s 1986 appeal in the Eighth Circuit, called for his release in 1991 and again in 20001, and former United States Attorney James Reynolds, whose office handled the prosecution and appeal of Peltier’s case, has called for a commute 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.” 2 In addition, 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.”3
Retired FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, in her letter addressed to you on December 3, 2022, raised how the “long-standing horribly wrongful oppressive treatment of Indians in the U.S.” played into Peltier’s case and, critically, the “FBI Family vendetta” behind the agency’s opposition to clemency.4 We recognize the grief and loss that took place in both the FBI and Tribal community on that day but also recognize this opportunity for all to move forward.
As Members of Congress, we sign this letter with a deep commitment to the crucial role we play in upholding justice for all Americans - and to also hold our government accountable when we see a case of injustice, as demonstrated by the long incarceration of Leonard Peltier. We stand with the Tribal Nations of the United States, Indigenous voices worldwide, and leading voices on human rights and criminal justice around the globe in support of Mr. Peltier’s release. We applaud your commitment to criminal justice reform and your administration’s work to address inequities in the criminal justice system and rectify the past wrongs of our government’s treatment of Native Americans. We urge you to take the next step by granting Mr. Peltier executive clemency or compassionate release.
1. Gerald H. Heaney, U.S. Senior Cir. Judge, 8th Cir., Letter to Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Chairman, U.S. Senate
Select Comm. on Indian Affairs (Apr. 18, 1991), http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info/download/Heaney.pdf.
2. James Reynolds, Former U.S. Attorney, Letter to President Joseph R. Biden (Jul. 9, 2021),
3. United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Opinion No. 7/2022 concerning Leonard Peltier (United
States of America) (Jun. 7, 2022), https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-06/A-HRC-WGAD-7-2022-USAAEV.
4. Coleen Rowley, Retired FBI Special Agent, Letter to President Joseph R. Biden (Dec. 3, 2022),
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