The Case of Leonard Peltier

Sunday, September 23, 2012

  • Michael Kuzma speaks to the crowd about Leonard Peltier at the Square Guelph.

    Michael Kuzma speaks to the crowd about Leonard Peltier at the Square Guelph.

Written by Peter Miller

Check out this link if you want to read the entire article, that includes more in depth information about the background Leonard Peltier as well as Peltier’s first trial. -Ed.

On Saturday September 15, 2012, Michael Kuzma, Leonard Peltier’s current Lawyer, came to Square Guelph to speak about the case of Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier is a Native American activist in the United States, who has been in jail now for 38 years. Many say that Peltier’s conviction for killing two FBI agents was a grave injustice, and something that anyone who studies his case can see. 

Peltier was an activist for the American Indian Movement (AIM) that started in 1968, and is a symbol of Native resistance. In 1972, AIM organized the Trail of Broken Treaties march to Washington. Participation in the march occurred all over the United States, and led to the occupation of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office. The protest brought attention to Native American issues, including the government’s unwillingness to abide by treaty rights, and poor living standards, and inadequate housing on reserves. After the march, the FBI started to try to neutralize AIM with their COINTELPRO program.

In 1975, Leonard Peltier was part of an AIM occupation in Pine Ridge that called to impeach Dick Wilson, Pine Ridge’s Tribal Chairman who was accused of corruption. The occupation also called for the U.S. Government to uphold treaty rights. Tensions rose, and Dick Wilson and his private army that was supported by the FBI, were accused of killing 50 AIM members and supporters during the 3 years after the start of the 73 day occupation. On one day of the occupation, the FBI came down to Wounded Knee claiming they were looking for someone who stole a pair of shoes. However, the police cars came to the occupation at Wounded Knee in a defensive position, and police officers withdrew their weapons, resulting in a fire fight with one Native American and two police officers being killed. 

Leonard Peltier was later sentenced to two lives in prison for killing the two officers after fighting extradition from Canada. While Peltier fought extradition, two members of AIM were found not guilty of the killings of the two officers, because it was found they acted in self-defence. However, when Peltier was extradited, he was later found guilty and sentenced to two lives in prison.

Michael Kuzma has been involved in Peltier’s case since 2001. According to Kuzma, in 1978 there were 3,500 pages of material given to the defence about the case, when there were actually 150,000 pages of material that was obligated to be given over to the defence.  He has made Freedom of information act requests in cities across the U.S. regarding the case. However, Kuzma has not had much luck getting pages of documents on Peltier from FBI offices. For instance, in Washington, summaries of the pages withheld were not given. Instead, a summary of the pages was given that was “vague and ambiguous” according to Kuzma.

“Some material was withheld on National Security Grounds,” said Kuzma as well.

More recently, Kuzma was denied 900 pages of documents regarding Frank Blackhorse. Blackhorse was with Leonard Peltier in 1976, where they were both arrested in Alberta. Blackhorse had an illegal firearm, and was wanted in Wisconsin for obstructing justice, but despite this was let out in only three days and never charged.

Blackhorse’s real name was Frank Deluca. He is not Native American and was born in New York City. Kuzma believes that Blackhorse was an informant for the FBI, and the documents on him could be used to free Leonard Peltier. Kuzma lost the case, even though he argued that the public’s right to know about Blackhorse outweighs individual rights. Blackhorse now lives in Canada. His whereabouts are unknown.

Kuzma also discussed how Leonard has been treated poorly in prison. He has recently been moved to a federal penitentiary in Coleman Florida, far away from his friends and family.

The case is commutable, meaning the U.S. President can free or lower the sentence on Leonard Peltier. According to Kuzma everyone thought Clinton was going to do this but the FBI got to him. At one point, Pamela Anderson spoke with George Bush, advocating for Peltier to be freed. Kuzma pointed out that unfortunately there is only hope that Obama will save Peltier if he loses the election, and therefore has nothing to lose. Unfortunately, Obama will not take the risk to free Leonard Peltier leading up to a contentious election.

Leanord Peltier’s case reveals a horrible injustice that has occurred. The case also symbolizes the mistreatment of Native American’s in the U.S. Pine Ridge is extremely impoverished. The average life expectancy there is only around 45 years of age according to Kuzma. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has not respected its treaty rights, and corporations have been able to profit off of uranium reserves in Pine Ridge. Leonard Peltier struggled for Native American rights, and for this, he was sentenced to two lives in prison.

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