Robert Redford says he is ready to push again for a presidential pardon for jailed former AIM leader Leonard Peltier. The Associated Press
On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents drove onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were looking to arrest a man named Jimmy Eagle, who was suspected of stealing a pair of cowboy boots.
Pine Ridge had been a nightmare of violence, intimidation, murder and mayhem almost on a daily basis.
There had been more than 60 killings in just a couple of years in confrontations between members of the activist American Indian Movement, and groups of thugs who controlled life on the reservation.
What happened after agents Coler and Williams neared the Jumping Bulls ranch on the reservation is a matter of long-standing dispute.
Gunfire broke out. Coler and Williams took cover behind their car, but their small-calibre service revolvers were no match for the high-powered rifles raining down fire from a small mesa above their vehicle.
Both agents were killed. Some witnesses said that after being mortally wounded they were executed with rifle fire to the head.
That November, four Indians, including an Anishinabe Dakota activist named Leonard Peltier were indicted for the murders of Coler and Williams.
Peltier managed to escape custody and fled to Canada, to Hinton, Alta.
The following February he was arrested by the RCMP and transported to Vancouver to await the outcome of an extradition hearing. In June 1976, the Canadian government authorized his extradition.
That next month, the others accused of the murders were acquitted. But a year later, on April 18, 1977, a jury in Fargo, N.D., found Peltier guilty of murdering the two FBI agents. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Incident at Ogalala
There has been a decades-long dispute about whether Peltier killed the two FBI agents. Before he died, Bob Robideau, one of the men acquitted in the shooting, admitted he killed both men.
But Peltier has stayed locked up, despite pleas from such luminaries as the late Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, retired South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and the actor and director Robert Redford to have his sentence commuted.
Redford's 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala, recounted the facts of the case and focused in on Peltier's trial. Now that Peltier is in poor health, Redford and others are renewing their efforts to draw attention to the case.
"I felt that he did not receive a fair trial," he tells The Sunday Edition this weekend.
But when Redford first visited Peltier in prison, he was initially skeptical.
"I was trying to be neutral in my feelings about him. I didn't want to be taken in by anything. I did feel that of course there would be desperation to a person in prison trying to get the word out.
"But I came out of it very sympathetic," Redford now says.
Subsequent investigations over the years have shone a disturbing light on the tactics used by the FBI in their handling of the incident.
Naturally, the bureau was incensed that two of their young agents had been cut down in cold blood. Redford says the FBI wanted "an eye for an eye."
Documents released subsequently under freedom of information legislation have shown that the FBI tampered with evidence, in one instance manufacturing testimony.
This referred to the affidavit of a woman named Myrtle Poor Bear who testified she saw Peltier shoot the agents.
Later investigation showed that Poor Bear had been threatened by FBI agents, and that she had, in fact, never laid eyes on Peltier.
At a hearing before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1978, the U.S. attorney at the time admitted that, "We don't really know who shot the agents."
Nevertheless, the judges rejected Peltier's appeal.
Peltier is currently being held in the maximum security wing of the Coleman Federal Penitentiary in Florida.
His health is weak. He suffers from diabetes and has had prostate trouble. A few years ago, he was beaten badly by some inmates.
He will be 70 next year. Redford's hope is that President Barack Obama will grant Peltier a pardon or commute his sentences. Redford had tried earlier to get then president Bill Clinton to pardon Peltier, but Clinton wouldn't do it.
Peltier has told friends and supporters that he wants to die at home, and Redford is optimistic.
However, Obama has granted fewer pardons than any other president including the two Bushes.
But as Redford told The Sunday Edition: "I am very hopeful and will raise my voice in any way."