Compassionate Release for Leonard Peltier, NOW!

On February 6, 2024, Leonard Peltier began his 49th year of incarceration, continuing his time as the longest-held Indigenous political prisoner in U.S. history. Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement during the height of the Red Power Movement and was convicted in an unfair trial that could not prove his guilt. Since his arrest and nearly five decades of incarceration, he has become a symbol of the fight against systemic racism and the persecution by the federal government of community movements advancing justice and equity.   

Peltier, 79, has been in prison for the majority of his life, following a trial filled with discrepancies and rooted in racism. NDN Collective and other justice and human rights  advocates, including Native Organizers Alliance, are demanding Peltier be granted compassionate release based on his time served, advanced age, and declining health. 

“Leonard Peltier is 79 years old, in his 49th year of incarceration, and his health is deteriorating. He is dying in the custody of the United States government,”  said Nick Tilsen, NDN Collective CEO & President. “His civil rights were violated repeatedly throughout his prosecution and imprisonment. His incarceration is now at the stage where it is both cruel and unusual punishment.” 

“We are asking the Department of Justice to consider the compassionate release of Leonard Peltier urgently,” said Judith LeBlanc, Executive Director of Native Organizers Alliance. “Leonard, who is 79 years old, is currently confronting serious chronic health issues. As the longest-serving political prisoner in the United States, Leonard has become a symbol of resilience. At a time when democratic values are being challenged, DOJ should take action as he nears the end of his life and allow him to return to his family on his ancestral homeland. We implore the DOJ to grant Peltier’s compassionate release.”

According to the American Bar Association, compassionate release is available for incarcerated people who seek early release due to extraordinary or compelling circumstances. Access to and eligibility for compassionate release has recently broadened following the COVID-19 pandemic and because of advocacy to end mass incarceration. 

“Attorney General Merrick Garland stood in front of hundreds of Tribal leaders at the 2022 White House Tribal Nations Summit and made a commitment that the civil rights of Native Americans are a priority for this administration,” Tilsen said. “Given the recognition of the many prosecutorial and constitutional violations from every level of those involved in his prosecution, there is now an unprecedented opportunity for this Administration to recognize the injustice of Peltier’s continued incarceration and support his compassionate release. Attorney General Garland, we need you to follow through on your commitment to Tribal leaders.”

Leonard Peltier has been a political prisoner for 49 years as the result of a flawed and corrupt prosecution. Following the death of two FBI agents in a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Peltier and two other Indigenous men were tried for the murders. While the two co-defendants, who were tried in a separate trial before Leonard, were acquitted of all charges due to self-defense, Leonard was charged with “aiding and abetting” in a separate trial. However, if there was no murder committed, and the deaths of FBI agents were deemed the result of self-defensive gunshots, then there is no crime to “aid and abet.” He has been held at a maximum security prison for decades. 

As an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, Leonard hopes to return to his homelands to spend his remaining years there. While incarcerated, Leonard’s overall health has declined: he is losing his eyesight, his diabetes is worsening, and he is facing a potentially fatal abdominal aortic aneurysm. 

“Many of the people who have advocated for Leonard Peltier’s freedom since he was wrongfully incarcerated have become elders or have transitioned from this world before witnessing his freedom,” said Janene Yazzie, NDN Collective Director of Policy & Advocacy. “We continue to fight for his freedom because we deeply believe in our right and responsibility to take care of our elders, to learn from them, and to honor and cherish them while we still have the privilege of their presence.” 

Healthcare for inmates in the prison system is known to be subpar. According to a report by The Sentencing Project, incarcerated people have an equivalent health status of someone 10-15 years older. Prisons are ill-equipped to support the process of aging and declining health. 

“Keeping our elder in a maximum security prison far from his homelands and community without access to medical care sends the message that the purpose of the carceral system is not to uphold justice, but to ensure the continued criminalization of Indigenous Peoples,” Yazzie said.

Peltier’s prosecution has been widely acknowledged by human rights organizations, the United Nations, and a former federal agent as unjust and unfair, with racism against Indigenous people at its core. The lead prosecutor on Leonard’s trial, James Reynolds, called for his release in 2017, noting Peltier was convicted as an accomplice in the crime and admitted it was wrong to keep him behind bars after more than 40 years. 

Participants of the rally in front of the White House hold signs calling upon the Biden Administration to Free Leonard Peltier. Photo by Willi White for NDN Collective.

The FBI’s narrative since the Jumping Bull shoot-out maintains Leonard’s alleged guilt and fails to acknowledge the Bureau’s involvement in the atmosphere in Pine Ridge at the time, Coleen Rowley told the Guardian in 2023. Rowley, a retired FBI agent who worked directly with prosecutors on Leonard’s case, wrote to President Biden supporting Leonard’s release, citing the lack of factual evidence to continue his incarceration. 

“If you really care about justice, then the real issue now is mercy, truth, and reconciliation. To keep this going for almost 50 years really shows the level of vindictiveness the organization has for Leonard Peltier,” Rowley said. “The bottom line is there are all kinds of problems in the intelligence service which by and large never get corrected for the same reasons: group conformity, pride and an unwillingness to admit mistakes so systemic problems are covered up and never fixed.”

Despite the growing number of those who have stepped forward from within their own ranks, the FBI continues to oppose Peltier’s requests for parole, clemency, and other means that could lead to his release. 

Bring Leonard home now. Have some compassion, Mr. Garland Peltier deserves to come home; Indian country deserves for him to come home.

Nick Tilsen, President & CEO of NDN Collective

On March 15, seven members of the United States Senate, including Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, submitted a signed letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for the release of Leonard Peltier. 

“It is time that the federal government rectifies the grave injustice of Mr. Peltier’s continued imprisonment, and strongly urge you to allow for his compassionate release,” the letter states. “Mr. Peltier, who has been imprisoned for the past 49 years and is suffering from severe health conditions should be able to return home and live out his remaining days among his own people.”  

Additionally, more than fifty current and former Tribal leaders have signed a letter urging President Biden to support a compassionate release for Leonard. Those signatories include National Congress of American Indians President, Mark Macarro; former NCAI President, Fawn Sharp; Chairman of the Indian Gaming Association, Ernest Stevens Jr.; Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman, Ryman Lebeau; Oglala Sioux Tribal President Frank Star Comes Out and Traditional Chief, Timothy Swallow; and Obama Medal of Freedom Recipient Suzan Harjo. 

You can support by calling your Representatives and Senators and asking them to contact Attorney General Garland and urge him to support a compassionate release for Peltier. 

Indigenous people and allies marched Washington DC and through Lafayette Park to convene in front of the White House for the Free Leonard Peltier Rally. Photo by Willi White for NDN Collective.

“Compassionate release will not only recognize the injustice of Peltier’s continued incarceration, it will allow him access to healthcare he both needs and deserves. It’s tragic that we are now at the stage where if he doesn’t receive immediate and necessary basic  health care, he will  die in prison – further perpetuating the tragic injustice of his entire prosecution.” Tilsen said. “Bring Leonard home now. Have some compassion, Mr. Garland Peltier deserves to come home; Indian country deserves for him to come home. Will you be the attorney general who released Leonard Peltier, or will you be the one who let him die on your watch? One of these things will be a part of your legacy. Act now, everyday matters.”

In his letter to supporters on February 6, 2024 – the day marking 49 years of imprisonment – Leonard wrote: “People think of me as a symbol. I suppose I am, but I am a man – a man who wants to go home to his family. Let this be the year that common sense prevails. Let this be the year that ‘liberty and justice for all’ are not words that ring hollow. Let this be the year that America learns to live up to its own principles.” 

Let this year be Leonard’s last in prison. 

  • Calling The Department of Justice asking for the compassionate release of Leonard Peltier: (202) 353-1555
  • Write a message to the Attorney General asking for the compassionate release of Leonard Peltier:
  • Write your Reps & Senators and ask them to urge Attorney General Garland to support the compassionate release for #LeonardPeltier:
  • Write to Leonard Peltier: LEONARD PELTIER #89637-132, USP COLEMAN I, P.O. BOX 1033, COLEMAN, FL 33521
  • Text FREELEONARDNOW to 50302 to join the campaign and help in urging for the compassionate release of our elder!
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