Last December, an Illinois mother sentenced to 22 years in prison for selling crack cocaine was released eight years early when, in a rare moment for his presidency, Barack Obama ordered an immediate release. The case represented an outlier for Obama: the 6,506 petitions urging him to commute or reduce an inmate’s federal sentence, he has granted only one, the fewest any president has allowed since 1900.
On Friday, Leonard Peltier’s supporters hope to convince Obama to exercise executive clemency for the jailed 68-year-old American Indian activist, when musicians including Pete Seeger, Common and Jackson Browne will rally at New York’s Beacon Theatre to bring home the man Amnesty International has long considered a political prisoner. Harry Belafonte will host the event, which will also feature appearances from fellow activists Michael Moore, Danny Glover, Peter Coyote and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer whose wrongful murder conviction Bob Dylan protested in a 1975 song.
Peltier, a leader of the American Indian Movement, was arrested in 1976 and charged with killing two undercover FBI agents during a shootout the previous year on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. At the end of his trial, during which no witness identified Peltier as the shooter, a judge sentenced him to two consecutive life terms. Human rights groups have long argued that enough malfeasance existed throughout Peltier’s trial to justify an executive order that would cut short his sentence.
“We’re hoping that Leonard will receive the freedom that he deserves, and obviously it would be great if our president can help participate in that,” Common tells Rolling Stone. “Basically I have to speak up, and I feel like being an activist means also not only speaking, but being active and standing up for the struggle, and standing up for those who are being served with injustice.”
Today Peltier suffers from poor health and, short of a sentence commutation or successful appeal, will likely never leave the federal penitentiary in Florida. His release date is set for October 2040, when Peltier would be 96.
“Please don’t let me die in here,” he pleaded in a letter in July to actor Peter Coyote, who said he met Peltier years before his arrest and has advised him throughout his imprisonment. Coyote says Friday’s event will help fund the North Dakota-based Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee, a nonprofit committed to reviving the fight for an appeal. While in prison, Peltier has garnered humanitarian recognition, including six Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
“He’s the Nelson Mandela of the Native American movement, and he’s a friend of mine,” Coyote says. “We have millions of people from around the world that are looking at the United States as a beacon of human rights, and we’ve held this one, aging Native American, who even the government says, ‘We have no idea what Mr. Peltier’s involvement was.’ And it’s a shame on our national honor.”
Others who have called for Peltier’s release over the decades include Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. Even the Court of Appeals judge who denied Peltier a second trial in 1986 publicly called for his clemency.
Before he left office, President Bill Clinton was believed to have weighed commuting Peltier’s sentence. Coyote says he agreed to attend the 1996 Democratic National Convention as a delegate, provided that he be introduced to a high-ranking Justice Department official to make his case for Peltier’s release. While Coyote acknowledged making inroads there, he admitted that efforts to suppress pro-Peltier progress ultimately reversed Clinton’s support. “At every single congressional office I went into, I was preceded by the FBI, who walked in showing them pictures of the dead agents,” Coyote recalled. “And I didn’t have a chance.”
Seeger, who at 93 will be the oldest activist to perform at the Bring Leonard Peltier Home 2012 Concert, says he considered writing the President, the First Lady and their daughters to appeal for Peltier’s clemency.
“Obama has compromised in so many different ways,” Seeger said, adding that Peltier’s activism and strength while in prison has inspired his own.
“For one thing, it means sticking to your principles, decade after decade, and not giving up. Right now, though, he’s in the worst situation.”