judge denies freedom of information act request by attorney with leonard peltier’s defense team

A federal judge last Friday refused a request by Michael Kuzma, an attorney with Leonard Peltier’s defense team, to review more than 900 pages of FBI documents related to Frank Blackhorse. Blackhorse was among the roughly 24 American Indian Movement members or supporters the FBI identified as having participated, on June 26, 1975, in a fatal shootout with two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. More than seven months later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Peltier, Blackhorse, and Ronald Blackman approximately 160 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta.

After Peltier’s arrest and extradition to the U.S., he was convicted – following an unfair trial in 1977 – of killing both FBI agents during the June 1975 firefight. (Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were tried for the same crime and acquitted, having been allowed to present a political defense, while Peltier was fighting extradition.) Blackhorse faced no extradition effort, even though he was apparently sought for questioning as to the shootout and under indictment for non-fatally shooting a federal agent at Wounded Knee during the 71-day occupation in 1973. As a result, Kuzma suspects Blackhorse may have provided information to law enforcement officials.

Whether or not Kuzma’s suspicion is correct, the judge’s denial of his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is troublesome. Such requests are one of a limited range of options for activists or their attorneys to attempt to discover or verify FBI misdeeds. They have been used, for example, in the successful cases following the false prosecution of Geronimo Pratt and the police assassination of Fred Hampton.

Indeed, after a FOIA suit in 1981, Peltier’s defense team received roughly 12,000 pages of documents, including exculpatory material not provided to Peltier before or during his trial. Due to the judge’s decision on Friday, Kuzma has been forced to file new FOIA requests, which can languish for years before the government might have to produce anything. According to a Buffalo News article in February, the FOIA request on which the judge ruled last Friday “dates back to 2004 and is the latest in a series of court actions designed to pry loose secret government documents.”