The United States on Wednesday put to death the only Native American on federal death row, the latest in a string of executions carried out by the Trump administration this summer and one that has touched off a renewed debate over tribal rights.
Lezmond Mitchell, 38, a member of the Navajo Nation, was convicted for his role in the 2001 murders of a woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter in Arizona.
Attempts by his attorneys to appeal his execution, including to the U.S. Supreme Court, were exhausted, and he died by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, without an 11th-hour intervention from President Donald Trump.
“Mr. Mitchell’s execution represents a gross insult to the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation, whose leaders had personally called on the President to commute his sentence to life without possibility of release,” Mitchell’s attorneys, Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi, said in a statement Wednesday. “The very fact that he faced execution despite the tribe’s opposition to a death sentence for him reflected the government’s disdain for tribal sovereignty.”
The attorneys argued that the Justice Department “exploited a legal loophole” when they sought the federal death penalty against Mitchell, who was 20 when he and a 16-year-old accomplice carjacked Alyce Slim, 63, and stabbed her multiple times, then killed her granddaughter, Tiffany Lee, according to prosecutors. The accomplice, also a Navajo citizen, was ineligible for the death penalty because of his age and was sentenced to life in prison.
The Navajo Nation opposes capital punishment. Since its sovereignty is recognized under the U.S. Constitution, its leaders can decide whether to apply the death penalty to crimes under the Federal Death Penalty Act.
But one of the charges that Mitchell was convicted of — carjacking resulting in death — does not require tribal consent under the law because the federal government considers it criminal no matter where it is committed.
Aminoff and Bacchi said Mitchell’s death sentence “represents an unprecedented infringement on the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation, which has steadfastly opposed his execution.” They also questioned whether racial bias may have played a part in Mitchell’s case since he was tried before a jury that had only one Navajo on it.
Navajo leaders in recent weeks have spoken out against the execution, saying it remains the only case in the history of America’s modern death penalty in which the U.S. government is applying it to a crime committed on tribal land and despite opposition from the tribal government.
Last month, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez wrote to Trump asking for him to reduce Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison.
“This request honors our religious and traditional beliefs, the Navajo Nation’s long-standing position on the death penalty for Native Americans, and our respect for the decision of the victim’s family,” Nez wrote.
Carl Roessel Slater, a Navajo council delegate, said he worries that “if this execution goes forward, the precedent will be set that, no matter the sovereign position of any Indian tribe, the federal government can kill American Indians and Diné, specifically.”
In their bid for clemency, Navajo leaders and Mitchell’s attorneys provided past statements from the victims’ family opposing the death penalty and from federal appeals court judges who agreed that ignoring the tribe’s wishes indicates “a lack of respect for its status as a sovereign entity.”
The Justice Department did not provide a new comment Wednesday about the decision to move forward with Mitchell’s execution. The agency has previously noted that a federal court in 2007 ruled on the legality of the death penalty sentence in Mitchell’s case and that the federal government during past administrations also sought the death penalty in cases of carjacking resulting in death.
In addition, at least one member of the victims’ family, the father of Tiffany Lee, told The Associated Press recently that he consents to the use of the death penalty as “an eye for an eye.”
“I speak for myself and for my daughter,” Daniel Lee said.
Over the past two decades, several states have moved to abolish the death penalty as the movement on the federal level ground to a halt — a combination of the lack of priority under previous administrations, concerns over botched executions and the delays caused by extended appeals.
But Trump, who has pushed a law-and-order agenda, is pressing ahead with such cases, even as critics have argued that carrying out executions during the coronavirus pandemic is unnecessary and puts the health of those at the federal prison in Indiana at risk.
In announcing the slate of executions last month, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department is going after “the worst criminals … convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding.”
“We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” he added.