As It Happens

Former prosecutor in Leonard Peltier case calls for the activist's clemency

Forty years after Leonard Peltier was sent to prison for the murder of two FBI agents, senior U.S. attorney James Reynolds is asking President Obama to let him out.
Forty years after Leonard Peltier was sent to prison for the murder of two FBI agents, senior U.S. attorney James Reynolds is asking President Obama to let him out. (Jeffry Scott)

Read Story Transcript

Leonard Peltier is 71. He has been in prison for the last 40 years, after being convicted of the murder of two FBI agents near Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Many facts of the case are disputed. Everyone from Nelson Mandela to Robert Redford has called for his release. Now, another voice has joined that call: James Reynolds, a former senior U.S. attorney who oversaw part of Peltier's case.

Reynolds spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about why he felt compelled to speak out now and write a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to grant Peltier clemency. Here is part of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Mr. Reynolds, why, after all of these years, do you think it's the right time to ask for clemency for Leonard Peltier?

James Reynolds: I think the answer is because it's all these years. The justice system has worked, now it's time for clemency. Whatever the needs were for the government, I think they've been met. I guess the ultimate would be to see him die in prison but I don't think that's necessary. They have justice done here. I thought I was in a unique position to be able to maybe make some kind of contribution so that's why I wrote the letter.
Leonard Peltier, shown here in a 1999 photo, was given two life sentences in a trial that has sparked controversy for decades. (Joe Ledford/The Associated Press)

HM: Can you remind us a bit about the case itself? Leonard Peltier was convicted of killing two FBI agents. What was the prosecution's case at the time?

JR: They basically were trying to prove, at first, that he was the one that actually pulled the trigger and killed the FBI agents. But I think, ultimately the government admitted that he was just an accessory, an aider and abettor, he was present when the agents were killed. So in the doctrine words the felony is committed. You're there and you're involved in it, you're guilty as the person who actually committed it. That's kind of the way the case has evolved to this point. It's kind of a moving target so to speak.

HM: What was your role in this case?

JR: I was appointed as the U.S. attorney when they changed the administrations from Reagan to Carter. The prior U.S. attorney who had been appointed was the one who stayed on. I kept him on to handle the case since he had been a former attorney general. He knew how to do the thing and he had done the actual trial. So I thought there was no need for me to do anything other than supervise the appeal and make sure that the conviction stood up and that the sentences were upheld. So what I did was basically supervise the appeal. I've been in an awful lot of cases along the way and nothing is ever perfect. Nothing is ever clean. There's always something that doesn't add up or that makes somebody raise a question and so forth. This case is no different from that — the only thing is that it was very high profile.
Leonard Peltier in cell at Leavenworth. (Jeffry Scott)

HM: Mr. Peltier's attorneys say federal agents made false statements, that they coerced witness statements, they withheld ballistic reports — can you tell us how you think the case was handled? Do you think it was a fair trial?

JR: It's like any other criminal case. I don't take it as unusual. But there were all kinds of circumstances and you had to take them all into consideration. There were some pluses and minuses but in the end he was convicted by a jury of his peers and sentenced by a court.
Leonard Peltier in art room at Leavenworth. (Jeffry Scott)

HM: Do you believe today that Mr. Peltier was responsible for executing those FBI agents?

JR: I have no idea. It was not part of my decision to join in the clemency request as to whether or not he did it or didn't do it. I think at this point, almost 40 years later, it's almost irrelevant at this point.

HM: We're told that Mr. Peltier is reportedly in quite poor health.

JR: I understood that was the case and that was part of it. This was going to get more and more expensive for the public all the way along the line, keeping his room and board and medical care. That was also something to be in consideration. I basically said, considering all the circumstances, it would be in the interest of justice that he be granted clemency at this point.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with James Reynolds.