WASHINGTON — A statue of a convicted killer at American University’s campus is generating outrage in law enforcement circles.
Made mostly out wood, 9-foot-tall statue of Leonard Peltier sits in a garden along Ward Circle, where Nebraska Avenue meets Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest D.C. For Peltier’s supporters, the statue meant to raise awareness to his push for clemency. But others say it’s an insult to the law enforcement community.
Peltier was convicted in the 1975 killings of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. The two agents had tried to pull over a car Peltier was in when they took on rifle fire. Both agents were shot in the head at close range before they even got out of their car. Months later, Coler’s gun was found in Oregon in a vehicle in which Peltier was traveling, with Peltier’s thumb print on the bag where the gun was in.
Eventually Peltier was apprehended, convicted and given two life sentences for the agent’s deaths. Peltier has admitted to shooting at the agents but denies firing the lethal shots.
“The evidence told the truth,” said Tom O’Connor, who is president of the FBI Agents Association. “These two agents were not just shot and killed. They were executed. That’s what that statue stands for to the FBI agents, law enforcement and their families.”
O’Connor said that there have been more than 12 appeals heard in Peltier’s case — two of them made it up to the U.S. Supreme Court. “All of them were upheld,” said O’Connor.
“The facts are never told when you hear the story of Leonard Peltier,” O’Connor said. “It’s always the person who is wrongly accused.
“They can say this and say that but the facts are the courts have reviewed it,” he said.
The FBI Agents Association is a nongovernment organization that represents the 13,000 rank-and-file members of the FBI and does not speak on behalf of the FBI itself.
On Thursday, O’Connor sent a letter to American University’s president, asking the school to take down the statue.
American University issued a news release in mid-December stating that it has taken no position on Peltier’s case and said the statue is “an exhibited piece of art.”
But O’Connor noted that the school refers to the statute as part of “a major clemency push” and that it is meant “to raise awareness for Peltier’s plight.” The university’s news release noted Peltier was considered a political prisoner by Amnesty International and links to websites that support Peltier.
“That to me, [it] seems like they’re taking the side of the Peltier supporters,” O’Connor said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s a piece of art. A piece of art you would say, ‘It looks very nice,’ not that it supports a person’s request for pardon.”
On Sunday, the university issued a statement stating that it would remove the statue from its current location. The statement did not specify whether the statue would be relocated or simply taken down.
The statement reads:
The decision to host the Peltier statue required a more thorough assessment of the implications of placing the piece in a prominent, public space outside the museum. With the benefit of a fuller review, we have made a decision to remove the piece from this location.
The subject matter and placement of the piece improperly suggested that American University has assumed an advocacy position of clemency for Mr. Peltier, when no such institutional position has been taken. Further, the nature and location of the piece called into question our ability to honor our responsibilities to ensure the security of the art and the safety of our community.