While preparing a previous Blog I once again picked up Peter Matthiessen’s, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse The story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s war on the American Indian Movement. This tome is the proverbial Bible, the touted bedrock of source material (along with the film, Incident at Oglala) by the LPDOC and a must read for anyone in Peltier’s camp. (My copy has been read at least a half-dozen times and referenced hundreds more. It’s dog-eared, with dozens of page markers, highlighted passages and marginal notes; it more resembles an old fringed pillow than a book at this point. It has been well examined.)
When I came across another familiar ITSOCH reference it begged for a formal reply.
Matthiessen was making the case for a new trial and supporting this he summarizes the defense issue surrounding the “Wichita AR-15” (trial Exhibit 34A) and the .223 shell casing found in the trunk of agent Coler’s vehicle (trial exhibit 34B). These were crucial pieces of Government evidence against Peltier. The AR-15 had been badly damaged when Robideau’s station wagon blew up on a Wichita Turnpike while he and others made their escape from Pine Ridge after the killings. The bolt mechanism, however, was functional and tested at the FBI’s Washington Laboratory in another similar weapon to determine if the “extractor” marks (those left on the ejected shell casing after the bullet is either fired or ejected) matched the casing from Agent Coler’s trunk. It did. The other essential step was to connect Peltier to this particular weapon at Jumping Bull and the point-blank murders of Agents Coler and Williams.
To support this premise Matthiessen states the following:
“The documents cited above are by no means the only ones that would justify an appeal for a new trial. Others cast light on the disputed contention between the damaged AR-15 rifle recovered from Robideau’s exploded station wagon on the Kansas Turnpike and the .223 shell casing allegedly found in the trunk of Coler’s car, which—keeping in mind that no evidence or testimony associated Peltier with that particular AR-15 in the first place and that even FBI expert Evan Hodge acknowledged that at least three AR-15s were involved in the shoot-out—represented the sum total of the ballistics evidence against him.” (p.484; Emphasis added)
Well, not quite.
So, we have two basic questions: Was there evidence or testimony connecting Peltier to this particular (essentially his) AR-15 at Jumping Bull? And did FBI firearms expert Evan Hodge testify that “at least three AR-15s were involved in the shoot-out?”
FBI Laboratory firearms expert, Special Agent Evan Hodge’s testimony at Peltier’s 1977 Fargo, ND trial is contained within 145 pages of trial transcript amounting to over 48,000 words.
It should come as no surprise that Agent Hodge never testified as Matthiessen claimed.
At no time does Agent Hodge make a statement in any manner that “at least three AR-15s” were involved at Jumping Bull. Defense attorney Lowe never posed that question to Hodge nor was it the subject of the many sidebar arguments before the Court. There was much direct and cross-examination of Hodge about a number of weapons and shell casings recovered both at Jumping Bull and other locations; none of which included another AR-15.
The closest these 145 pages of testimony came to the possible existence of any other AR-15s that day was the recovery of a total of fourteen, (two groups of seven), .223 shell casings (Lab items Q100-Q105, and Q130 located by the “green house” at Jumping Bull and Q2513-Q2519 located in the “tent city” area) that were eliminated as “not” being “extracted” from Peltier’s Wichita AR-15. (Trial Transcript 3323)
However, seven of those (Q100-105 and Q130) were identified as being military type ammunition and stamped with “LC” for “Lake City Arsenal,” a military manufacturer. This is the same type ammunition issued to FBI agents and used after the shooting of Coler and Williams when other agents and law enforcement responded to Jumping Bull and engaged in fire-fight skirmishes as Peltier and others made their escape. (Trial transcript, 3320, 3384, 3389) In other words, the other AR-15s were brought there after the killings of Agents’ Coler and Williams—by FBI personnel.
(Correctly so, that does not account for the other seven .223 shell casings, which were not further identified during Hodge’s testimony or during the trial; however, that still doesn’t negate Matthiessen’s error. These other casings may be the subject of a subsequent NPPA Blog.)
To make it absolutely clear, defense attorney Lowe never asked Agent Hodge whether there were “at least three (or any other number of) AR-15s” at Jumping Bull, nor did Agent Hodge testify to that effect.
However, as a finding of fact, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded:
“When all is said and done, however, a few simple but very important facts remain: The casing introduced into evidence had in fact been extracted from the Wichita AR-15. This point was not disputed; although the defense had its own ballistics expert, it offered no contrary evidence.” (Eighth Circuit, September 11, 1986)
Thus, Matthiessen reinforces the folklore with just another erroneous myth of Peltier’s feigned innocence.
Also, contrary to Matthiessen’s claim, it was established during the trial and recognized by the Eighth Circuit Court that among the AIM participants during the shooting that morning Peltier was the only one with an AR-15, a weapon he was known to carry. (Eighth Circuit Court, September 11, 1986; see also NPPA Editorial Essay #55 Critical Witnesses against Peltier.)
(It would be fair to point out, yet again, that Matthiessen’s reporting was biased from the beginning because he was on Peltier’s payroll when doing his extensive research for the book. In exchange for full access to Peltier and the many others involved, Matthiessen had agreed to share the profits.)
HAVING IT BOTH WAYS: It is reasonable for Peltier supporters to make an observation, or criticism, that the NPPA wants it both ways; at once attacking Matthiessen’s reporting and then using ITSOCH to provide proof of Peltier’s guilt.
But that wouldn’t be a fair criticism. Here we point out a deliberate falsehood…not just an error of fact or sloppy reporting from the trial transcript, but that Matthiessen was completely wrong: Possibly deliberately so. This is an entirely different scenario when, during the lengthy research for his book and his access to Peltier and many others, Matthiessen “quotes” Peltier and others. For an author to “quote” someone he has interviewed is more than merely significant, it provides first-hand proof.
That’s precisely why we can have it both ways, pinpointing Mathiessen’s errors of fact and then throwing at Peltier some of his own significant statements. And we are grateful to Matthiessen for providing perhaps the most critical quote from Peltier in the entire 600-plus pages of ITSOCH:
“I seen Joe when he pulled it out of the trunk and I looked at him when he put it on, and he gave me a smile.” (See July 8, 2012 Blog for complete details.)
And for that we thank Peter Matthiessen for helping everyone understand Peltier’s guilt beyond any doubt.
“In the Spirit of Coler and Williams”
(P.S. All references are available on the No Parole Peltier website; the trial transcript is available on Peltier’s website, whoisleonardpeltier.info.)