The State of U.S. Justice

Clinton, the FBI and the emergence of a police state

by Leonard Peltier

CovertAction Quarterly, April / June 2001


From behind prison walls, the reality of American justice is clear as glass. Therefore, when former President Clinton failed to grant me clemency on January 20, 2001 it did not come as a major shock, although it was distressing nonetheless.

Clinton's handling of clemencies throughout the last month of his presidency revealed the true character of American justice, as he pardoned and commuted sentences for white collar criminals, mostly members of his elite circle, and failed to use the clemency power for what it was meant: to correct injustices and to show mercy to those who truly deserve it.

In fact, we have reason to believe that a denial of my clemency was one of the stipulations in Clinton's deal with special prosecutor Robert Ray, to avoid prosecution himself.

Sadly, most of the talk about Clinton's clemency scandal has focused little on how the clemency process should be used, and when applied correctly, how it can benefit society. As a result, future presidents will likely be more hesitant than ever to grant clemency to anyone, including those serving sentences that really should be commuted. Unfortunately, this is all part of a larger trend to lock up more people for longer periods of time, with fewer avenues for redress.

I, like many others, have been raked through a failing appellate process, parole process, and now, the clemency process. Although I am very encouraged by the growing movements working to stop the wave of mass imprisonment, I am sometimes alarmed about the Lack of awareness of laws passed that have banned the rehabilitated from being released, and the innocent from receiving due process.

For example, there is case law that allows a person to remain imprisoned after a reasonable doubt has been cast on his or her guilt. I was convicted of first-degree murder, but after the main evidence used to convict me was impeached on appeal, the U.S. Prosecutor admitted, "we can't prove who shot those agents."

The court found that I may have been acquitted had the FBI not withheld evidence which cast a "strong doubt on the government's case." Despite this, a retrial was denied based on the Bagley standard-I cannot go back to court unless even more new evidence is uncovered. The FBI has steadfastly refused to release the 6,000 documents pertaining to my case, which they withhold for reasons of national security.

Also, few are aware that the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which activated mandatory minimum sentencing, also set forth the total abolishment of the Parole Commission, meaning anyone convicted of a federal crime will never be eligible for parole, no matter what strides he or she makes toward rehabilitation.

This measure, however, was not to apply to the tens of thousands of prisoners who had been convicted before the act was passed. These prisoners are referred to as "old law prisoners."

Congress mandated the Parole Commission to give all old law prisoners their probative release dates before its abolishment, which was set for 1992. As the final abolishment date approached, the commission went to Congress and asked for a five-year extension because of the Lack of staff and heavy case load of prisoners they needed to assign parole dates to. After the extension expired, they requested yet another one, setting the current abolishment date for next year. Yet, very few old Law prisoners, like myself, have been given probative release dates as required by law.

Furthermore, many of us are long overdue for parole and are being denied release arbitrarily so that the Parole Commission will have an excuse to stay in power. So basically, the Parole Commission is illegally applying mandatory minimum sentences to old law prisoners in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, all of these issues combined are having a devastating affect on millions of family members of the convicted. Kids are Left without fathers or mothers and elders are Left without their sons and daughters. Even worse, the trend is not only to lock up masses, but also to create harsh conditions inside. The gains in prison reform that the people worked so hard for are now being rapidly reversed. No longer are any courses offered in this prison, so prisoners are not able to better educate themselves. Recreational activities are few. And, our phone and visitation privileges are being gradually whittled away.

Just this week we received a memo which will restrict our phone access to 300 minutes a month, averaging about 10 minutes a day. Many family members cannot afford to travel here for visits, and the phone is their only way of speaking with their Loved ones. Additionally, the change will be devastating to political prisoners who are able to maintain a connection with the outside world and make key defense decisions through the telephone.

Outside of the major flaws in the criminal justice system, it seems law enforcement is becoming bolder in its attempts to dictate the fate of a controversial case, instead of allowing the courts and key officials to do so.

On December 17, 2000, the FBI marched in front of the White House to stop my clemency, and they have worked with the Fraternal Order of Police, who have made shameful attempts to obstruct justice in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, to do the same to me. From behind these prison walls, it is hard to deny that we are heading quickly toward a police state.

The only way these trends can be reversed is through public education, outcry and organizing. Let us make it unpopular for politicians to posture as "tough on crime" when in fact, they are tough on justice.

I want to encourage all the good people and organizations who are working on political prisoners' cases, prison issues, and criminal justice concerns to join together to work toward ending these problems.


Leonard Peltier was sentenced in 1977 to life imprisonment for murder. Evidence in the possession of the FBI clearly shows he did not commit the crime. He has served 24 years in the maximum security Leavenworth Penitentiary.

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