CNN/Time Leonard Peltier Transcript
Broadcast October 10, 1999

© 1999 White Feather

GREENFIELD: Welcome back to CNN & TIME.

Because we think of ourselves as such a politically stable country, we're shocked when we hear of violence that erupts between federal authorities and groups of private citizens. Think of Waco or Ruby Ridge.

Well, nearly a quarter of a century ago, in a more turbulent time in America, there was another shootout, this one at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It's case that is still controversial.

What actually happened at Pine Ridge in 1975? That remains unclear. What we do know is that two FBI agents were killed and only one man has ever been convicted and sent to prison for those crimes. That man is Leonard Peltier.

More now from Mark Potter.


LEONARD PELTIER, CONVICTED OF DOUBLE HOMICIDE: I didn't kill these people. I didn't kill them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel in this case that justice was done, genuinely and honestly.

PELTIER: I didn't kill those agents. I didn't see who killed those agents. And if I did know, I'm not telling. But I don't know. That's the point.

POTTER:(on camera): Did you fire at those agents, Coler and Williams?

PELTIER: I shot in their direction, yes.

POTTER: You did shoot in their direction?

PELTIER: Yes, when I was running up toward the house. But I mean, I -- I know I didn't hit them. I know I didn't.

POTTER:(voice-over): It's argument that Leonard Peltier, a Native American, has made for years: that he is innocent of murdering two FBI agents in South Dakota in 1975. He's been behind bars for those killings for nearly a quarter century and still argues defiantly that the agents were at fault.

POTTER:(on camera): So the deaths of those agents are not murders.

PELTIER: Not in Indian -- not in Indian people's eyes.

POTTER: What are they?

PELTIER: Self-defense.

POTTER: In the Badlands of South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the mystery of exactly what occurred here on June 26th, 1975 is still unsolved. What is known is the morning quiet was shattered by a shootout between a group of Native Americans and two FBI agents. The agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, were wounded from afar, then executed at point-blank range.

The only person ever convicted and imprisoned for the killings was Leonard Peltier. He is serving two consecutive life sentences at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

All these years later, the case of the United States of America versus Leonard Peltier remains controversial. Many argue that he has served more than enough time in prison.

(on camera): What are you guilty of? Is there anything you concede?

PELTIER: Standing up for my people, saying, no more, America. God dammed, no more. Stop killing us. That's what I'm guilty of.

POTTER:(voice-over): But the FBI and federal prosecutors argue firmly that Peltier is lying, that the agents' blood is on his hands and he should not be released.

Nicholas O'Hara (ph) is a retired FBI supervisor.

NICHOLAS O'HARA, RETIRED FBI SUPERVISOR: Why should any civilized community have to take somebody like that who has shown no remorse, no sorrow, no acceptance of responsibility? The guy should never see the light of day.

POTTER:(on camera): His argument for not showing remorse is that he's victimized and he didn't do it.

O'HARA: That's bullshit. The evidence is absolutely incontrovertible of his involvement in that -- in those double homicides. I've described Leonard Peltier as a mad-dog. He is truly a mad-dog.

POTTER:(voice-over): Lynn Crooks is an assistant U.S. attorney who helped put Peltier in prison.

(on camera): Years later, decades later, you can still sleep well at night thinking that the...


POTTER: ... right man was convicted.

CROOKS: There's never -- there's never been a twinge of doubt that's ever crept into my consciousness that Leonard was not a guilty participant in this murder.

POTTER:(voice-over): Still, not everyone is convinced he is guilty or received a fair trial.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am profoundly honored to be in Pine Ridge.


POTTER: Recently, when President Clinton visited the Pine Ridge Reservation to promote economic development, he was confronted by Native Americans calling for Peltier's release.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, they concede they have no evidence...


POTTER: Over time, Peltier's case even became an international cause celebre. Among those who have supported him are Mikhail Gorbachev, the European Parliament, and former South African archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu.

DESMOND TUTU, NOBEL LAUREATE: In a democratic society where there is transparency, you are innocent until you've been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And in this case, it doesn't seem so.

POTTER: Peter Matthiessen's book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" brought Peltier's case to the public.

PETER MATTHIESSEN, AUTHOR, "IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE": We want Leonard Peltier to get a fair hearing. We want him out before his entire life is drained away to satisfy other people's political or vindictive agendas.

POTTER: Robert Redford is also a supporter and produced a documentary called "Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Amnesty International considers Leonard Peltier to be a political prisoner.

POTTER: Amnesty International is calling for Peltier's immediate release. Peltier has his own defense committee, with an Internet site, and even has support on Capitol Hill.

Among those arguing for clemency is Senator Daniel Inouye.

SEN. DANIEL INOUYE (D), HAWAII: Over the years, the evidence that Leonard Peltier is not the guilty party just seems to mount.

POTTER: But prosecutor Crook says Peltier's are either uninformed about all the evidence or blinded by emotion.

CROOKS: This is a very garden-variety murder case, and it -- it took on an air of a special case only because of the willingness of certain supporters to take this as an Indian cause when in fact this never had anything to do with him being an Indian.

Shooting FBI agents is a Federal crime, regardless.

POTTER:(on camera): So why does this nearly 25-year-old case continue to evoke such emotion and concern. To many, it is seen as unfinished business from the turbulent 1970s and the political climate of the times.

(voice-over): In 1973, two years before the agents were murdered, armed activists from AIM, the American Indian Movement, took over Wounded Knee, South Dakota to protest conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It led to a 71-day standoff with heavily armed federal authorities.

When the standoff ended, Pine Ridge was thrown into what Peltier supporters call the reign of terror: escalating violence between AIM supporters and tribal vigilantes known as Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONs.

Edgar Bearrunner (ph) was there.

EDGAR BEARRUNNER: The vast majority of people were prisoners of fear. You couldn't get out on the road and walk down the road without being shot or run over. Or you couldn't leave your lights on at nighttime without fear of a drive-by shooting.

POTTER: Bruce Ellison is one of Leonard Peltier's attorneys.

BRUCE ELLISON, ATTORNEY FOR LEONARD PELTIER: It was very much of a state of war in that sense, very much of a state of terror.

POTTER: Some claim the FBI contributed to the climate of fear by targeting AIM, an allegation the FBI denies. It was during that period of conflict that Leonard Peltier came to the reservation as part of AIM to provide security.

It was also the time in June 1975 when the two FBI agents, Coler and Williams, drove onto the reservation in separate cars, reportedly searching for a young assault and robbery suspect.

According to the government's version of events, the agents came upon this red and white van driven by Leonard Peltier.

CROOKS: Leonard and two other young men came into their area in the red and white van, followed by the agents, went down into the valley. The agents had said on the radio it looks like they're going to stop, it looks like they're getting out, they may shoot at us, we've been hit.

POTTER: The agents were in a bad position: a low-lying pasture surrounded by hills and trees.

According to the government, carrying only handguns, their rifles in the trunks of their cars, were also outgunned.

CROOKS: When the shooting started, others came from the camp, and now we have six or seven people shooting at the agents. Very quickly, they were injured, seriously.

O'HARA: There were over 125 holes in the agents' cars. The ground was chewed up by the fire that was directed at these two defenseless agents. Jack Coler was shot, mortally wounded and knocked unconscious.

{Portion Missing}

for Coler's arm and there's two bullet holes in the shirt. So he'd already been hit himself.

POTTER: The question of what happened next is the most controversial part of the government's case because a credible eye witness has never come forward.

Federal authorities say the wounded agents were executed at close range and that the evidence suggests the murders occurred as Ronald Williams tried to surrender.

O'HARA: He apparently was holding his right hand up to shield himself from the assailants who came forward. And as they shot him, they shot him directly through the hand, blowing part of it away, into his head killing him. And either before that or after that, Jack Coler, who's laying on the ground dying, is shot twice in the head, killing him.

POTTER: The government claims it found a shell casing in the trunk of Agent Coler's car that came from an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, allegedly carried by Leonard Peltier.

CROOKS: There's no question that he was the only individual who was seen firing at the agents with an AR-15 by any witness. Every witness at trial was consisted that the AR-15 was his, there was only one of them, and it was his.

POTTER: Based on circumstantial evidence and testimony, including that of several Native Americans, the prosecution's contention is that Leonard Peltier was involved in the executions.

{Portion Missing}

influence of Leonard Peltier. They aren't down there to give aid and comfort to these two injured, dying men. They're down there to execute them, and that's exactly what they did.

POTTER:(on camera): So ultimately, the question of whether Leonard actually fired the fatal shots in that broad context doesn't matter.

CROOKS: It's legally, factually and morally irrelevant. To me, the law looks at him in exactly the same way, whether he handed the gun to someone else and had them do it or whether he did it himself.

POTTER:(voice-over): It's an account that Leonard Peltier and his supporters deny, claiming the government's case was built on phony evidence.

PELTIER: Somebody has to pay, that's what they're saying. Somebody has to pay, and I'm the unfortunate person that has to pay.


GREENFIELD: Coming up, Leonard Peltier says he was framed. His version of events when CNN & TIME continues.


SHAW: The FBI calls Leonard Peltier a cold-blooded killer, a criminal responsible for a 1975 firefight that killed two federal agents. But if you listen to Peltier and his supporters, you hear a completely different story, one of a political prisoner and injustice.

Here again is Mark Potter.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: President Clinton, release Peltier, release Peltier.

POTTER:(voice-over): On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, many of the tensions and concerns from the mid-1970s are still present today. It remains one of the poorest corners in America. Unemployment is nearly 75 percent. Alcoholism and hopelessness abound.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What are we working for today?

POTTER: In mid-summer, Pine Ridge residents led off on a protest march led by veterans of the 1973 Wounded Knee takeover, including AIM leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: This is the Nebraska State Patrol. You're in violation. Disperse at once.

POTTER: At the Nebraska border, they confronted police. Nine were arrested. At issue were concerns over alcohol sales and the unsolved murders of two young Native Americans. It's of the times two and a half decades ago, when Leonard Peltier set up camp at Pine Ridge.

Today, Peltier is serving two life prison sentences, which run until the year 2040. He is now a 55 year old grandfather.

(on camera): What's your greatest fear?

PELTIER: Dying in prison, you know, away from my family.

POTTER:(voice-over): Peltier denies the government's contention he was involved in the executions of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams.

PELTIER: I didn't kill these people. I didn't kill them. I don't know how else to say it. I didn't kill them.

POTTER: He also denies he was in or even near the red and white vehicle the government claims they were following when the shoot-out erupted.

PELTIER: That was not my vehicle, first of all.

POTTER:(on camera): To be clear, when the agents came on to the reservation and into that area, where were you?

PELTIER: I was down at camp.

POTTER:(voice-over): According to Peltier's version of events, he was still in bed when he heard gunshots.

PELTIER: Then all of a sudden everybody said, man, we're being attacked. We're being attacked. I says, oh, my God. So I grabbed an old rifle and started running up to the house. There was all kinds of gunfire.

POTTER: Peltier claims the only time he fired was in self-defense.

PELTIER: Some shells hit the side of the building, so I know they were shooting at me.

POTTER:(on camera): And you shot back?


POTTER: Did you hit anybody?

{Portion Missing}

hit, hurt where I was shooting at.

POTTER:(voice-over): Peltier says he never saw the dead agents.

(on camera): So with those cars down there at the center of that, you, as a leader, never -- never went down to see what was going on.

PELTIER: That's right.

POTTER: You never saw the bodies?


POTTER:(voice-over): But later, Peltier changed his account when told that another AIM member had said publicly he and Peltier approached the agents' cars.

(on camera): Did you see the agents dead?


POTTER: You did see them dead?

PELTIER: Actually, I mean, I -- I, you know, I knew they got killed. I heard they got killed. I knew they got killed.

POTTER: Did you see them there?

POTTER: But you saw them from...

PELTIER: A distance.

POTTER: From some distance?


POTTER: What did the scene look like?

PELTIER: I don't know, just two people laying there. I mean, the car door -- the car door was open and stuff.

POTTER:(voice-over): The shoot-out prompted a massive law enforcement response during which Joe Killsright Stuntz, a young Native American, was shot and killed.

Afterward, Peltier says he and several others left the area. He claims he turned down an offer to hide in Cuba and eventually made his way to Canada.

PELTIER: We don't have no faith in the justice system. We didn't have no -- didn't think anybody could get fair trials. Don't think anybody you know, they were going to railroad somebody. They were extremely upset about what happened to their agents.

POTTER: In November 1975, five months after the shoot-out, Peltier and three other men were indicted for the murders of the FBI agents. Charges against one of them were dropped. Two others, Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were tried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

They denied executing the agents, and argued that because of widespread violence and fear on the reservation, they had acted in self- defense. The jury found them both not guilty.

Defense attorney Bruce Ellison:

BRUCE ELLISON, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: After Butler and Robideau were found not guilty by the jury in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the government documents say that they decided to shift all of their attention to basically convicting Leonard Peltier.

POTTER: By then, Leonard Peltier had been arrested in Canada and was extradited to the United States. His trial in Fargo, North Dakota, was under much different circumstances than the trial of Robideau and Butler. Jurors were sequestered and security was tight.

ELLISON: The jurors were transported in buses that had the windows painted shut. It's a climate of fear, and I think that that climate of fear pervaded the entire courtroom.

POTTER:(on camera): During Peltier's trial, the judge limited the amount of historical evidence that could be presented about violence on the reservation and alleged FBI conduct. In addition, had more witnesses than at Cedar Rapids. Peltier never testified on his own behalf.

(voice-over): In April 1977, Leonard Peltier was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.

One concern among supporters is whether Peltier was extradited fairly from Canada.

These affidavits were sworn by a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear, who said she was Peltier's girlfriend and actually saw him commit the murders.

PELTIER: Myrtle Poor Bear? Who the hell is Myrtle Poor Bear?

POTTER: The federal government used her affidavits to help convince Canadian authorities to return Peltier to the U.S. for trial. Myrtle Poor Bear later claimed her statements were coerced.

ELLISON: She wasn't even there. She had never known Leonard Peltier. It was a complete and total fabrication.

POTTER: Over the years, some members of the Canadian parliament raised concerns about the extradition. The current Canadian justice minister says there was no fraud, and the FBI denies falsifying the affidavits. Prosecutor Len Crooks argues the controversy over Myrtle Poor Bear and the extradition had no bearing on the murder conviction.

CROOKS: Myrtle Poor Bear was not a trial witness. She did not testify before the jury. She had absolutely no impact on that verdict.

POTTER: But Peltier's supporters argue the extradition typifies a pattern of government misconduct in this case, for example, the issue of the red and white van. Attorney Ellison argues that the FBI's own documents suggest the murdered agents may have actually been fired upon from a red pickup truck, not the van the government linked to Peltier.

ELLISON: What we did not learn until after that trial was over, years after that trial was over was that the government knew it was a red pickup that the agents followed in.

CROOKS: The eyewitnesses only placed one vehicle coming in and that's Leonard's. So obviously, they've developed the theory that there was another shooter, but there's no evidence of that. There was no evidence presented at trial of that.

POTTER: Peltier's supporters also attacked the government's crucial ballistics evidence. At trial, the FBI said the shell casing found in the trunk of Agent Coler's car came from an AR-15 rifle linked to Peltier.

ELLISON: Years after the trial, we obtained FBI documentation which showed that a definitive test excluded that casing as having been fired by that weapon.

POTTER: Prosecutor Crooks argues the FBI ballistics reports were badly written and confusing, and that while the first tests were incomplete and inconclusive, the final lab analysis matched the casing to the weapon. A federal appeals court agreed.

CROOKS: The bottom line of that opinion is the shell casing matches. Nobody seriously doubts that in any kind of scientific sense.

POTTER: The weapon was found in a car that exploded on the turnpike near Wichita, Kansas, after the Pine Ridge shoot out. Several AIM members were arrested, but Peltier was not there. The defense claims it is impossible to prove the badly damaged weapon was his. Prosecutor Crooks says a witness linked Peltier to the AR-15.

PELTIER: That's another lie. I never had no, you know, no AR-15.

POTTER: Peltier's supporters say the government's evidence is unreliable.

O'HARA: No way.

POTTER: The FBI categorically denies it fabricated evidence or coerced witnesses.

O'HARA: I don't think there is any question from a review of the facts that he was given a fair trial. It would have to be such a major conspiracy to railroad Leonard Peltier that it's almost impossible to fathom how complex that would be. The evidence is there, clear and convincing. He was there. He did it.

POTTER:(on camera): Peltier's attorneys argued his case three times before a federal appeals court and lost every time. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review it. Last year, he was again denied parole.

(voice-over): With his appeals exhausted, Peltier's best hope for release now is clemency from the president of the United States.

(on camera): Leonard, do you know who killed those agents?


POTTER: You don't?

POTTER:(voice-over): Peltier continues to blame the government for the shootout.

PELTIER: The oppression, the terror that they were committing, they were financing. Murders that they were supporting, not, you know, not investigating. I mean, it's all those things. I know that's what happened. People were mad. People were angry.

CROOKS: He's not succeeded in getting parole for the reason that most people don't succeed: He's not shown the normal contrition, the normal remorse, the normal what-not that goes into it.

POTTER: Retired South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU, SOUTH AFRICA: The point is he says he is innocent. I mean, you say, how can he be able to express contrition or remorse for something that he hasn't done?

ELLISON: His two co-defendants were found not guilty on the same charges. It's a wrong that remains to be corrected.

POTTER: Author Peter Matthiessen.

PETER MATTHIESSEN, AUTHOR: I think we have a wonderful chance to act mercifully and say, enough is enough. This man has paid.

POTTER: But the government's position remains firm. Two consecutive life sentences means two consecutive life sentences.

POTTER:(on camera): In your view, does Leonard belong right where he is, in prison?

CROOKS: Absolutely.

POTTER: Still today?

CROOKS: Yes. I have seen nothing to indicate that he shouldn't be right where he is at.

PELTIER: I'm not a cold-blooded executioner like Len Crooks has been saying for 25 years, or 24 years. You know, I'm not a mad-dog killer. I'm not a thug. I'm a human being. That's been wronged, and I have some friends to tell the world.


SHAW: Those seeking clemency for Leonard Peltier plan to bring their message here to Washington next month. Dubbing November, Leonard Peltier Freedom Month, supporters are outlining a series of events in the nation's capital, including a near month-long fast in front of the White House.

Well, that's this edition of CNN & TIME. I'm Bernard Shaw. Jeff, I'll see you next week.

GREENFIELD: Thanks, Bernie. I'm Jeff Greenfield, for everyone at CNN, good-night.

Please read these comments about the CNN/Time "show".
Please feel free to take this graphic and put it on your own web pages. It is not necessary to provide a link to this page, but if you choose to do so, this is the proper URL;
FREE Leonard NOW!

Letter to me from Anne McLellan
Letter from Anne McLellan to Janet Reno
Canadian release of extradition information
Summary of Canadian extradition information
File review of the extradition
News release Dec. 17, 1976
Comments from Dennis Banks ref: Leonard
CNN/Time "show" about Leonard
LPDC comments about the CNN "show"
Myrtle Poor Bear affidavits
International Office of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee


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