Clemency sought for Native American activist who fled to Canada after FBI murders in 1975
|National Post 13 Jan 2017 at 08:54|
The case to grant him clemency is among those before Obama in the last week of his presidency and has drawn support from the likes of Desmond Tutu, Jesse Jackson and Amnesty International, along with the National Congress of American Indians.
Forty years is enough, former prosecutor James Reynolds, who took office shortly after Peltiers trial in 1977, told the New York Daily News. He said the office might have shaved a few corners here and there during the trial and subsequent appeals, and also said he still wasnt sure of Peltiers guilt.
Peltiers lawyers accused the FBI of fabricating and withholding evidence in the killings of its two agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler. The men died during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where they had gone to arrest a tribal member. Peltier, who was active in the American Indian Movement, said he had taken part in the shootout but denied being the one who shot the agents at point-blank range.
Peltier fled to Hinton, Alta., hiding out in a friends cabin. He was arrested on Feb. 6, 1976, eight months after the murders.
A witness whose identification led to Peltiers extradition from Canada, said later she had been coerced. A federal appeals court found improper conduct by some FBI agents, but denied Peltier a new trial. A judge on that court recommended presidential clemency in 1991. And last month, a former U.S. attorney in the office that prosecuted Peltier wrote to Obama urging compassionate release.
On the other side is the FBI, a potent political force. Nearly 500 FBI agents marched outside the White House in 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton was considering clemency for Peltier. The FBI Agents Association is urging Obama to keep Peltier in prison, and recently prevailed on American University in Washington, D.C., to take down a statue of Peltier that the school had dedicated last month.
The clemency decisions that await Obama before he leaves office Jan. 20 involve an uncertain blend of justice, mercy and politics. They could form a significant part of Obamas legacy as he prepares to make way for a successor whose sympathies, by all indications, lie elsewhere.
President-elect Donald Trump described himself during the campaign as a law-and-order candidate who was willing to loosen restraints on police, torture suspected terrorists and kill their families. He has endorsed the death penalty and nominated another hard-liner, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, as attorney general.
Obama, by contrast, told an interviewer in October 2015 that he found the death penalty deeply troubling in the way its carried out, and suggested he would take some executive action before leaving office such as commuting some or all of the sentences of the 62 inmates on federal death row.
Obama has already commuted that is, reduced more than 1,000 federal sentences, nearly all for nonviolent drug offenders whose terms were much longer than they would be under current law. He has granted only about 70 pardons, which restore a convicted persons rights and freedom while not erasing the conviction itself. Most of those actions have come in recent months, and none has involved a prominent person.
As Obama ponders clemency decisions, said Margaret Russell, a constitutional law professor at Santa Clara University, he is surely aware that there are no signs anything like that would happen under a Trump administration.
On the other hand, Obama is also aware of the uproar surrounding some past clemency decisions like Gerald Fords preemptive 1974 pardon of former president Richard Nixon, which contributed to Fords defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976 and has generally been cautious on criminal justice issues.
Ive seen nothing at all to suggest hes going to use his clemency power in controversial ways, said P.S. Ruckman, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University and author of the PardonPower blog, which tracks clemency decisions by presidents and state governors. He said he expects commutations to a few hundred more drug offenders, and a handful of pardons, mostly in drug cases, before Obama leaves office.
If they put people in jail for that, they wouldnt have any room in the jails
That would rule out a wholesale commutation for federal death row inmates, as well as the pardons urged by some immigration advocates for more than 728,000 unauthorized migrants who entered the United States before age 16 and have been given reprieves from deportation by Obama. Trump has vowed to repeal the program and to deport two million to three million criminal immigrants and, under the law, could probably override even a blanket pardon by his predecessor.
Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and sentencing expert, offered a somewhat different forecast for Obama.
While Obama has steered clear of controversial cases so far, Berman said, now that hes shown a commitment to reduce sentences that he thinks are unjust or excessive, maybe his last few batches will include some high-profile folks.
Don Siegelman, a former Democratic governor of Alabama, is nearing the end of a 6-and-a-1/2-year sentence for bribery, a case brought by his political opponents and overseen by a judge who was later forced to resign from the bench because of domestic violence. Siegelman, 70, could be released as early as next month, but his supporters are urging Obama to pardon him.
The former governors federal prosecution on corruption charges was directed by a Republican whose husband was a consultant for the candidate who defeated Siegelman for re-election in 2002. Siegelman was convicted of accepting a contribution to his campaign for a state lottery measure from a man seeking reappointment to an unpaid state board transactions that have been commonplace in Alabama and elsewhere.
If they put people in jail for that, they wouldnt have any room in the jails, said Jesse Choper, a University of California at Berkeley law professor who supports Siegelmans release.
Politics of a different sort may work against Chelsea Manning, whose disclosures of U.S. war practices and diplomatic manoeuvres angered leaders of both parties. The former Army private was sentenced to 35 years for disclosing hundreds of thousands of classified documents about U.S. conduct in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The president has shown little sympathy for those who reveal government secrets. He said recently that he would consider clemency requests by supporters of fugitive Edward Snowden the former federal contractor who disclosed the governments blanket surveillance of Americans phone records only if Snowden returned from exile in Russia and turned himself in, a virtual guarantee of a lengthy sentence. Trump has described Snowden as a traitor who should be executed.
One category that appears to carry little political risk is clemency for now-dead prisoners whose conduct is easier to depict as innocent, or at least understandable, with the emergence of new evidence and changes in social mores.
In addition to Ethel Rosenberg, whose alleged involvement in espionage was always less clear-cut than her husbands, civil rights advocates want Obama to pardon Marcus Garvey, a pioneer of black nationalism in the 1920s who was targeted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, convicted of mail fraud and deported to Jamaica after his release from prison.
Supporters are also seeking to clear the name of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1913 for transporting a white woman his fiancee across state lines for immoral purposes.
Although posthumous grants of clemency would add to Obamas legacy with little likelihood of any backlash, Berman, the Ohio State law professor, said the president should concentrate on those who are still behind bars.
I dont want people to be sitting and waiting in prison, in this limited time, while the president acts for someone whos already gone, he said.