Radio Interview; April 4 2014
1) Commentary on Robert Redford’s interview is available on the No Parole Peltier Association blog available from the homepage, www.noparolepleltier.com.
2) What follows is the transcript of an interview of Robert Redford on April 4, 2014 with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC podcast and Sirius XM Radio), narrated by Michael Enright.
3) The reference to the 1988 Redford film Incident at Oglala (copyright 1992 Miramax Films release) contains the follow advertising for the DVD version:
“A Murder. A mystery. A mockery of justice? What are the facts? And what is the truth? In 1975, armed FBI agents illegally entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Gunfire erupted—a Native American and two FBI agents fell dead. After the largest manhunt in FBI history, three men were apprehended—only one, Leonard Peltier, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. This is his story.
From the very beginning, Peltier’s case has been dogged with controversy. Were the charges trumped up? Was the evidence falsified? Were witnesses pressured to change their testimony? Many people, including some of today’s greatest legal minds, believe that Peltier is an innocent man.
Twelve years ago, Robert Redford visited Leonard Peltier in prison. Today, after years of struggle with the FBI and the prison system, he and director Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner’s Daughter) are able to present INCIDENT AT OGLALA—a riveting examination of the case and the real story of what may be one of the most outrageous abuses of justice in American history.”
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CBC program entitled: “Robert Redford on Leonard Peltier: Robert Redford discusses why he supports the release of imprisoned American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier. Peltier was illegally extradited from Canada in 1977 and was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents in what many call an unfair trial.
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(Program begins with a voiceover excerpt of Dino Butler from the Redford produced and narrated film Incident at Oglala.)
Enright: The story of what happened that day in 1975 when FBI Special Agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams were shot and killed on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, has been told. In the 1992 award-winning documentary Incident at Oglala, which was produced and narrated by Robert Redford, three men were charged in the killings and two men were found not guilty. Leonard Peltier, a leading member of the American Indian Movement was extradited from Canada in 1977 and was convicted of killing both Coler and Williams. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. For 38 years he has been moved from prison to prison around the United States. He is currently in the high security Coleman Penitentiary in Florida. He and his many supporters who have included Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Harry Bellefonte have always maintained that he was illegally extradited and convicted in an unfair trial. All of his legal appeals have been exhausted and he has been denied parole. His next parole hearing will not be until 2024 when he will be 79 years old. Leonard Peltier is in failing health. In a letter written in February he has said he wants to go home to die.
Robert Redford is in New York this morning. Mr. Redford, welcome to the program.
Redford: My pleasure, thank you.
Enright: This concern about Mr. Peltier’s health, you know he has diabetes, he’s had prostate problems, can you tell us anything now about the state of his physical health?
Redford: No, I think you’ve just underlined it pretty well, I think over time, I think the incarceration, the stress of that, the confinement of that, I don’t think that’s good for anybody’s health. I can tell you this, that I visited him in 1980 shortly after he was incarcerated…
Redford: When I visited…well first of all my, um, my personal history of this…let me be...starting with the fact that for many, many years since I was quite young, I’ve been interested in Indian history and Indian affairs, so I think that leads into this…
Redford: This happened, I was obviously, I was pre…predisposed to be interested in it. Now, I had just made a film in 1979 called Brubaker, about a warden. And what I heard was, I heard about the incident at Oglala, and I’d heard a lot about it…ah, and what came to me was, if you could get to this prison, the security prison in Illinois…um, the word is that he’d been transferred to this prison, but his life was in danger…
Redford: There were people who would like to see him taken out. And his life was in danger in prison. And he’s so deeply confining, he’s so much down in the bottom of the barrel so to speak inside the jail. Maybe if you drew attention to him being there, it might save his life. Now that’s how it was presented to me, whether that was true or not, I don’t know. But because of the possibility, I said yes, I’ll go. So I went to Illinois in 1980…
Enright: This is in Marion.
Redford: …and I went there to see him and I remember the feeling I had, and I can only project that onto what he must feeling after 38 years, and that is, as you go into a prison and they slam doors behind you get deeper, deeper into this confined area. And it gets pretty spooky…
Redford: …because you realize that for each door that slams that you’re further away from freedom. And so when I finally got to see him, apparently I was told I was the first person that could see him live, even his own family has not been allowed to see him…he had to be…there was a glass…was a glass thing that separated them…
Redford: And so, maybe they were trying to put on their best behavior, I don’t know, the prison, I don’t know, but I remember the feeling I had when I went to see him. And he looked at me and there was something so forlorn…now mind you this was only a few years after he had been imprisoned so he was still in reasonable health. He had a bad eye, I remember that.
Redford: Um, but he was in reasonable health, and he was mixed in terms of his optimism, he was hopefully optimistic, but also realistic at the same time. So we talked. I felt, obviously, I was trying to be neutral in my feelings about him…because I thought that…I didn’t want to be taken in by anything…
Redford: I did feel that, um, of course there’s going to be desperation to a person in prison trying to get the word out and maybe use another person to get it out, I appreciate that. But I came out of it very sympathetic to him and I felt that he did not receive a fair trial and the other two that were involved in the same incident went to trial and were acquitted. And I think that that leads us to another area here and I think that is this whole business that involves the FBI.
Redford: The FBI, cause I was told, I got pretty involved in exploring this and interviewing people and going to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, speaking to people there and it was pretty clear that the FBI has very strong feelings about an eye-for-an-eye. So these two agents had been murdered, somebody had to pay. And the question is who, and is he really guilty? Well, that’s never been truly established. But I think the FBI were being pretty determined that somebody had to pay for this. So somebody was going to pay for this, no matter what. That’s the impression I had then…I think I still have.
Enright: That’s what I don’t understand, the due process went right off the rails in this. In the Fargo trial, for example, the jury was not allowed to hear about other cases where the FBI had tampered with evidence and with witnesses and so on.
Redford: Well, there you have it, in other words, I, looking at this…if you can take a bird’s eye view of this and look at the whole picture you begin to see it’s a sketchy situation…
Redford: …and it does point a finger at the FBI and the fact that they would withhold something or not want certain records, no want certain people’s voices to be heard. Points again to the business of fairness.
Enright: But even at, even at the appellate hearing for Leonard Peltier. The U.S. Attorney himself, after going through the case, said, I’m quoting now, “We do not know who shot the agents.”
Enright: But that’s an extraordinary exculpatory statement, isn’t it?
Redford: Well it is, I mean, absolutely, so why is he being in prison?
Redford: They don’t know, then why is he in prison. Look, I made the documentary because I wanted to present the facts and let the audience make up their own minds. I was not advocating his innocence…
Redford: …as much as, because I don’t know. I don’t have that right to know. I wasn’t there. I felt that was going to be my contribution to the situation. I didn’t realize at the time it would take so much to get true information out and that’s made me very sad. And that at one time, you know what was disappointing about then President Clinton. I really felt that he was not gonna to get a fair trial, it was just going to happen…
Redford: …with the FBI involved and whatever the FBI’s involvement with our government…whatever that connection was probably would not permit him a fair trial. So I thought well then the only thing is to hope for a pardon, because I think he deserved that. And we went to Clinton and said look when you get to run for the pardoning time this is a clear case of…
Redford: …a guy’s been there so long and he’s suffering, this would be a good reason for pardon. And when he chose not to pardon him, and pardoned Marc Rich.
Enright: The industrialist, yeah.
Redford: That tells you a whole lot, maybe it tells you stuff you don’t’ want to know. But, I thought that was such an incredible blow. So I think that Leonard had a pretty rough time of it and I feel sorry about that. So what do we do about this, what do we do about the fact…well we, there’s nothing I can do. But what does one do in the interest of fairness, in the interest of justice, and the interest of our government, commitment to justice? What do we do about evidence piling up over and over and over again that his man was not treated fairly? That this was not a fair trial, there was ever…even some illegality involved in his extradition. What does one do about that? No a whole lot you can do as a citizen except try to raise a voice to it, draw attention to it. I’ve been to congress, I’ve been to lobby, and I’ve tried a lot of things. Obviously, there’s something very stuck here, really deeply stuck.
Enright: Tell me what the opposition of this group called the retired FBI agents association, they seem to be quite prominent every time a situation comes up where Leonard Peltier applies for parole or commutation or something, these ex-FBI agents swing into action.
Redford: Well, I mean, that I think that you can look at that as some kind of a club, I think it’s a club of very…there’s an ideology connected to that and they’re going to stick that no matter what. They’re going to stick to their case, their cause, which is their own organization even though their retired, they’re going to stick to that because loyalists to the cause, they’re loyalists to the organization. Even if facts dictate otherwise they’re going to stick to their, their story. I think that’s what we’re seeing probably.
Enright: What was your initial reaction, I mean, I’m imagining that you must have gone through a series of responses to what you learned as you learned it. Did you, were you angry, were you frustrated, what went through your head with all this?
Redford: What went through my head was first is what is the situation, what was the reality here, what are we really dealing with and that had to be supported by facts. So, the question first was to get as many facts as you could and once I got those facts it led me to believe that there was an unfairness here, and that was maybe there was something I could do to help that get turned around. And so, as I started to work on it and wasn’t really getting anywhere, there was frustration. And that frustration I think led to finally to anger when I realized that there’s just, life is, life is not fair and…
Redford: …whether we like it or not it just isn’t and this is one of the instances that no matter what did, no mater how you tried, things were not going to be fair here and that left me angry.
Enright: What comes through in the documentary, among many other elements, is that Pine Ridge was a very violent place in those days.
Redford: Oh God, there were drive-by shootings, they were happening all the time. It was a very, very violent place. And it was a violent time because you had the traditional Native Americans clashing with the more modernized, you know the Americanized Native Americans…
Redford: …and there was a clash there, historical, almost tribal, and then there was there was just the fact that you had alcohol, you had, there’s just a whole lot of problems of deprivation and poverty on the Ridge…of course, I go back in history and I think my, my support of Native Americans and their culture goes back to the very beginning of, I think what we call Manifest Destiny, when we, in the interest of taking whatever we could back in the 1800s, in the interest of taking whatever we could by whatever means…
Redford: …and then, and then, deserving to own it, we created Manifest Destiny which pretty well wiped out that whole culture, and I, I think there’s a lot of value in that culture, so I’ve always felt that way and I’ve always felt very sympathetic to the cause of them fighting this injustice.
Enright: What was the reaction, immediate and latterly after the Incident at Oglala came out?
Redford: I remember that we weren’t getting much traction. I tried to screen it at various places. It wasn’t getting a whole lot of traction so I thought that well maybe we can use the Sundance Festival…
Redford: …to promote it because at that time the festival was only about four or five years old and it was still kind of struggling along but it was getting some traction and because it was creating a platform for new work to be seen, I wanted to push documentaries. Because I always felt that documentaries were very, very powerful and they were essentially kinda like long form journalism and then I thought that had value. So, I was pushing documentaries and when we did this film, I decided well maybe we could put this documentary in the festival and that…
Redford: …and maybe that exposure will help it along. I did that, but I’m not sure it did. I remember going there, announcing it and kind of presenting it, but I’m not sure. Had it been a public outcry, had there been a rolling out outcry, where the populace had such a strong voice it would force government into action…
Enright: Uh, um…
Redford: …it would have happened by now, I think it just never, I’m afraid that the situation and the documentary never really got to that point of traction where it created a kind of ah, a uproar to create a movement to free him, yet individuals like the one’s you’ve mentioned, but I’m not sure there was enough to create a movement…
Redford: …for justice.
Enright: My guest this morning is Robert Redford, he is in New York, we’re talking a about Leonard Peltier. Let me ask you just a couple of quick questions. The man is going to be 70 next year. Is it the government’s intention, do you think, to keep him in prison until he dies?
Redford: Based on evidence, so far, that yes I believe that, I believe that business of an eye-for-an-eye still holds, and I think I was told in fact, over time that’s probably what was going to happen, that he would never get a fair trial, he was going to stay there, they were not gonna, they would make sure that he would not get out. I was told that, now that does not make it true…
Redford: …I just remember being told that by a number of people at the time. And it certainly looks that way.
Enright: Up to now President Obama has signed 52 pardons and commuted one sentence. Have representations been made to the President and are you hopeful that he might pardon Leonard Peltier?
Redford: I don’t know whether other representations have been made but certainly I’m hopeful. I was disappointed in Clinton, and I’m hopeful for Obama to see it differently and see the injustice here. Yeah, I’m very, very hopeful and I will raise my voice in whatever way I can. Not so much whether innocence or guilt but…
Redford: …fair trial. And for that reason, because he’s done his time, he’s paid his dues. I think he deserves a pardon.
Enright: What have you learned, let me ask you finally, what have you learned about due process, the Constitution, the American criminal justice system, aboriginals?
Redford: What I guess I’ve learned, is it, we got the constitution. That’s all we’ve got and it’s the strongest (unintelligible), and we should adhere to it and make sure certain people don’t try to change it. I know there’s been some talk about certain justices wanting to reorder it or redefine it, so I hope not. I think that would be a big mistake. It’s the only thing we got that leads us towards fairness, but there’s always going to be unfairness, I mean that’s just the way it is. But because we have this law, we have this document that gives us a chance for fairness I think we have to do whatever we can to uphold it.
Enright: Mr. Redford it’s a pleasure to meet you on the radio sir, thank you.
Redford: Thank you.
Enright: Robert Redford, narrative and produced the 1992 documentary, Incident at Oglala, this morning he was in his Sundance offices in New York. You’re listening to the Sunday edition of Across Canada on CBC Radio One and across North American on Sirius XM radio. My name is Michael Enright.
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“In the Spirit of Coler and Williams”