Navajo Nation Calls For End To Federal Execution Of Tribal Member, Lezmond Mitchell

justice court
(Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WINDOW ROCK — The Navajo Nation Council is calling on the U.S. Federal government to reverse a planned execution of Lezmond Mitchell. Mitchell, a member of the Navajo Nation, was convicted over 17 years ago for the federal crime of carjacking resulting in murder that took place on the Navajo Nation in 2001.

The member of the Navajo Nation Council argue that members of the Navajo Nation should never be subjected by the Federal government to the death penalty.

“This is about reaffirming our longstanding position and standing up for the Navajo Nation’s sovereignty. The United States made a commitment to the Navajo Nation in the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994,” said Council Delegate Carl Roessel Slater in a press release. “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. While this is a justice issue, this precedent will only add another chink in the nation’s sovereign armor.”

On July 29, U.S. Attorney General Office directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to reschedule the execution of Mitchell after successive appeals and hearings. The scheduled execution is set for August 26 at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Delegate Slater is sponsoring Navajo Nation Council Legislation No. 0166-20, calling on the federal government to recognize the Navajo Nation’s opposition to capital punishment in any and all forms, including the sentence given to Mitchell.

The capital punishment for Mitchell was allowed under the Federal Death Penalty Act, which went into effect on Sept. 13, 1994. The Act established procedures for imposing the death penalty for 60 offenses and included provisions for capital crimes committed by members of a Native American tribal nation.

Those special provisions for Indian country, found at 18 U.S.C. §3598, state:

“… no person subject to the criminal jurisdiction of an Indian tribal government shall be subject to a capital sentence under this chapter for any offense the Federal jurisdiction for which is predicated solely on Indian country … and which has occurred within the boundaries of Indian country, unless the governing body of the tribe has elected that this chapter have effect over land and persons subject to its criminal jurisdiction.”

As early as 2002, the Navajo Nation stated, in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice:

“As part of Navajo cultural and religious values we do not support the concept of capital punishment. Navajo holds life sacred. Our culture and religion teach us to value life and instruct against the taking of human life for vengeance. … The capital punishment sentence removes any possibility of restoring the harmony in a society.”

The 2014 letter reinforced the Navajo Nation’s position against the use of the death penalty by the federal government in cases where the defendant is a member of the Navajo Nation.

Chief Justice Yazzie continued to avail the Navajo Nation’s concerns by pointing out that the Federal Bureau of Investigations repeatedly interrogated Mr. Mitchell while in tribal custody to develop evidence later used to support the federal death sentence. He pointed out that Mitchell was not tried on Navajo land nor by a Navajo jury, but instead was tried before an Arizona jury in a federal district court. Of 30-36 Native Americans interviewed for the jury panel, all but one were excluded for reservations regarding capital punishment consistent with Navajo religion and culture, use of Navajo as a first language and hardship created by the long distance between the Navajo Nation and Phoenix.

“[T]he Navajo Nation asks the Department of Justice to right the wrongs of previous administrations and honor our Nation’s sovereignty,” stated Chief Justice Yazzie.

The legislation sponsored by Delegate Slater would reaffirm the Navajo Nation’s position opposing the death penalty imposed in Lezmond Mitchell’s case and asks the federal government to respect the Navajo Nation’s decision against all forms of capital punishment for tribal members.

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