In a turn of events stemming from nearly 50 years ago, Champagne-Aishihik citizen John Graham and American-Indian Leonard Peltier could both be released from prison before they die.
Both men were young pawns in the battle that raged within and against the American Indian Movement (AIM) on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the early- to mid-1970s. They were both arrested for events in South Dakota, and extradited to the U.S. where they were served with life sentences.
Graham’s extradition waiver will be reviewed, according to a B.C. court decision on Feb. 8, while Peltier’s life sentence may soon be commuted by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Graham was jailed for the 1975 kidnapping and murder of Anna Mae Aquash. Peltier was jailed for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents. Both were tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison — Graham in 2010 and Peltier in 1977.
Now, in both cases, on both sides of the border, authorities are admitting they erred.
On Feb. 8, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian government erred in consenting to a “waiver of speciality” for John Graham, which gave the U.S. authorities permission to try him on a more serious charge with a harsher minimum sentence, rather than face the original charge as per his extradition documents.
In July 2021, a former United States attorney, James Reynolds, admitted in a letter to President Biden that his department held extreme bias and used questionable tactics in the prosecution of Leonard Peltier as it related to events on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Though Graham’s and Peltier’s extradition cases were 30 years apart, both their charges stem from events that occurred at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Through testimony, Aquash’s murder was linked to Peltier’s case.
Graham is now 66, Peltier is 77.
In 1973, 18-year-old Graham was involved with the Council for Yukon Indians’ delegation to Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Following that, he traveled to Minnesota to help out with AIM’s Heart of the Earth Survival School and learn about American Indigenous rights movements. This is where he met Anna Mae Aquash, a Nova Scotia Mik’maq and native rights organizer.
Graham was 20 and Peltier was in his late 20s when things heated up. The American Indian Movement (AIM) had started off with educational aspirations, but then modelled itself after the Black Panthers; the IRA was in full force in Northern Ireland; and people were marching and protesting across America.
It was a heady and rebellious time. Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota was a hotbed of ideas and violence. Reports indicate that more than 60 people were murdered on the reservation between 1972 and 1976 when tribal leaders carried on a private war against the AIM and the Indigenous members who had allied with them. (This is loosely portrayed in the 1992 movie Thunderheart). Some sources described it as a civil war that raged on the reservation, fueled by FBI infiltrators.
Paul DeMain, a retired reporter with Indian Country News, followed the events, interviewed witnesses and is credited with exposing the inner tactics of the AIM.
DeMain told the News that Peltier and Graham were on two different levels within the AIM organization. At the top was Dennis Banks and others, backed up by Peltier and others; then Graham, Arlo Looking Cloud and Thelma Rios were below them. The last three were charged with the murder of Aquash.
Peltier sought refuge in Canada in 1976. His extradition was based on what is now recognized as perjured information. In 1977 he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
The shadow of the shady evidence presented in the Peltier case, gave pause to justices during the Graham case, whose extradition arguments extended from 2003 to 2007.
Marilyn Sanford, John Graham’s Vancouver-based attorney said after the Feb. 8 judgement, that “Canada’s role in the Peltier case is a long line of questions.”
So is Graham’s case. He was extradited, then faced trial on different charges in a different court, and was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. His court-appointed lawyer did not call any witnesses in Graham’s defence at trial in South Dakota.
In the United States, Peltier is deemed America’s longest-serving political prisoner. In recent days, his impending release has been discussed in the Guardian, the Huff Post and Buzzfeed.
Calls have heightened due to two things – Peltier’s current health risks and James Reynold’s 2021 statements as a former prosecutor at the time.
Reynolds wrote President Biden saying “that the prosecution and incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is unjust. We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation”. He doubted that the minimal evidence offered against Peltier would be enough in any court today.
With that acknowledgement, so comes a call for the re-examination of FBI tactics, racism and all prosecutions of that time and place. Many of the same witnesses were called in both Graham’s and Peltier’s trials.
In Canada, the precedent set in the court of appeal this week is historic. It says that the Minister was wrong to make a decision on a “waiver of speciality” without the involvement of the person affected. This, is a process-based decision, and will not review the merits of the case, but how the case came to be. It will now be up to Canada’s Minister of Justice to review its own decision from 12 years ago.
Both cases are hugely controversial. In 2016, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould turned down a request from the Canadian Bar Association to support clemency for Leonard Peltier, and the Assembly of First Nations publicly supports the Aquash family in their quest for justice.
In Yukon, the John Graham Defence Committee has found new legs and hundreds of letters are likely to be penned.
Correction: This story was updated to correctly reflect that the murders that both Graham and Peltier were accused of occured in 1975.
Contact Lawrie Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org