Leonard Peltier's family still hopeful for clemency; policymakers disagree
FARGO—Sitting in her south Fargo apartment below a large oil painting of her brother, Betty Ann Peltier Solano sifts through hundreds of newspaper clippings about him.
The headlines span more than 40 years and take Solano back to countless prison visits, hearings and trials she attended here and across the country in support of her brother, Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist that some paint darker than the image on Solano's wall.
Peltier was convicted to two consecutive life sentences for the murders of two FBI agents during a shootout June 26, 1975, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
This week marks the 43rd anniversary of the infamous crime that culminated in Fargo's federal courthouse before an all-white jury with the world watching.
Peltier, now 73 years old, has been imprisoned ever since—15,480 days to be exact as of Monday, June 25, according to the Free Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.
He's been behind bars through four presidents and four requests for clemency, and the current administration may be his last shot at freedom
"I'm hoping it will happen and Trump will help him. You never know—he could be the one to let him out," Solano said. "I'm just going to hope and pray. I wish somebody would help my brother."
Solano will be attending the Trump rally at Scheels Arena in Fargo on Wednesday, June 27, along with other Peltier supporters and family, including her niece, Kari Ann Boushee, of Moorhead, Minn. The group plans on wearing Free Leonard Peltier T-shirts and carrying accompanying signs.
"Uncle has always said how the FBI— the presidents since he's been in prison have always, almost as if there's a chain of command, they've been underneath the FBI. But Trump, he's like, 'No, I'm the president. The FBI is underneath,' " Boushee said. "I think he (Trump) sees things that aren't right. He sees the corruption."
Peltier's next parole hearing is slated for 2024, when he'll be nearly 80 years old.
Earlier this year, Peltier provided a statement on his committee's website acknowledging 43 years in prison. He noted a long list of ailments: aortic aneurysm, prostate issues, arthritis in hips and knees. He had open heart surgery last November and was hospitalized for 10 days.
Considering his poor health and age, Peltier's family said Trump holds the key to clemency or compassionate release. At the very least, they hope he could be transferred to a facility closer to his family instead of in Florida more than 1,700 miles away.
The fight for clemency
Reports from Pine Ridge during the 1970s depict a warzone. Between 1973 and 1975, there were 60 unsolved murders. Peltier's conviction was on the heels of the occupation of Wounded Knee and swarms of FBI agents were being sent in while former Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson formed "Guardians of the Oglala Nation," known as Goons, fueling the tense atmosphere.
Peltier has maintained his innocence and said he has been part of "Native resistance" since he was 9 years old. He said in the statement earlier this year that the trauma of his "false imprisonment" carries the same feelings of being taken to boarding school with Solano and their cousin when they were young.
The school was in Wahpeton, N.D., Solano said, and after that she was taken to a Fargo orphanage while her brother went out west to fight for Native rights.
Solano said her brother dreams of one day returning to Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation to build a big house for them both to live in called "The Leonard Peltier compound," she said.
Her mood shifts from sorrow to hopeful—a cycle she's experienced her entire life. Up until recently when Trump began granting pardons, she said she lost all hope. But now the family thinks Trump could grant clemency.
Assistant United States Attorney Lynn Crooks, Fargo, admitted during Peltier's appeal case in 1985 that it's unknown who shot the two agents, according to Peltier's attorney David Frankel, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Crooks did not return numerous request for comment.
Frankel sent a letter to Trump in March asking to discuss the historic case and Peltier's bid for freedom.
Frankel said in a series of emails to reporters that he's not sure if Trump has seen the letter.
"It is difficult to anticipate how this request will be viewed by the current administration. The President has certainly been outspoken in describing his disdain for the FBI and Justice Department regarding some current investigations, and his recent pardons suggest a willingness to recognize that past FBI investigations and DOJ prosecutions were flawed," Frankel wrote. "That was certainly the case here."
Frankel said many others have written to the president in support of a pardon for Peltier, including human rights advocates and former members of the Department of Justice.
One of the top prosecutors, James Reynold, made an unprecedented request to President Barack Obama to grant clemency. Obama signed no, like his predecessor, President George Bush.
President Bill Clinton passed the pardon request onto Bush rather than denying clemency.
"We always thought the Democrat would do it," Boushee said. "We were surprised when Obama didn't do it."
Republican Sen. John Hoeven is the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. In a statement, Hoeven said he "believes that he (Peltier) should serve his full sentence and should not be pardoned."
Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is running to oust Democratic incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, echoed Hoeven and said compassion should be reserved for the families of the murdered agents.
"I am not in support of a pardon for Leonard Peltier and I suspect after a review by the appropriate authorities the request will not reach President Trump," Cramer said in a statement. "Mr Peltier is a violent radical who participated in a string of crimes culminating in the murder of FBI special agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams."
Cramer added that Peltier was a fugitive leading up to the shootout. The congressman said Peltier fired a shot at a Oregon Highway Patrol officer before he stole a rifle and pickup truck from a ranch while evading arrest and fleeing to Canada.
After two other co-defendants at the shootout were found not guilty on claims of self defense, Peltier was illegally extradited to Fargo for trial in 1976.
Before his conviction the following year, he was moved to numerous county jails throughout North Dakota while awaiting the sentencing that shook Indian Country and the world — with supporters as far as Hollywood, Moscow and Paris.
Heitkamp, who serves on the Senate Indian Affairs committee, would not fully weigh in on Peltier's pardon, but provided her thoughts in a statement.
"I've spoken with several leaders in Indian Country about the case involving Mr. Peltier and understand his impact on Indian Country as well as the pleas from his family. Mr. Peltier's case has been reviewed extensively by several presidents, and no past appeals on this case have been granted. It is up to the president and executive branch to make presidential pardons and commutations. To maintain the separation of powers created by our Constitution, it's important for Congress to not weigh in on that process, and it's my office policy not to weigh in on presidential pardons."
Despite the unsuccessful pardon requests in the past, Peltier's family clings to the thought of him one day returning to Turtle Mountain.
"I'm finding myself hopeful now—I have to," Solano said. "I don't' know where else to go from here."
Boushee said to her aunt: "It feels good to at least to have the hope, doesn't it?"
This story has been updated to correct changes to members of the House Indian Affairs Committee.