U.S. Executes Only Native American on Federal Death Row

By Shani Saxon Aug 27, 2020

The only Native American on federal death row was executed by The United States on Wednesday (August 26) as part of a “string of executions carried out by the Trump administration this summer,” NBC News reports. The move raises new questions about tribal sovereignty.

Reports NBC:

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.

Mitchell’s attorneys, Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi, called out the federal government’s utter disregard for tribal rights in a statement obtained by NBC. “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," the statement read. "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."

Prosecutors say Mitchell was 20 years old when he and a 16 year old friend “carjacked Alyce Slim, 63, and stabbed her multiple times, then killed her granddaughter, Tiffany Lee,” NBC reports. The 16 year old, also part of the Navajo Nation, was too young to be sentenced to death and instead received a life sentence for the carjacking and murders. 

Aminoff and Bacchi believe the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) "exploited a legal loophole" when pursuing the death penalty against Mitchell, NBC reports. The Navajo Nation’s  sovereignty is recognized under the U.S. Constitution, as NBC points out. That means that Navajo leaders can decide when it’s appropriate to apply the death penalty to crimes under the Federal Death Penalty Act, even though the Navajo people are against the death penalty. 

Reports NBC:

…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.

Mitchell’s attorneys said in their statement that their client’s execution "represents an unprecedented infringement on the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation, which has steadfastly opposed his execution."

Navajo leaders recently slammed Mitchell’s then pending execution, pointing out that it is “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,” NBC reports. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in July wrote a letter to Trump asking for a stay in Mitchell’s execution, according to NBC. Instead, he said Mitchell should be sentenced to life in prison. Capital punishment “violates tribal custom and culture,” according to the Arizona Daily Sun. Life in prison is the maximum penalty for murder on the Navajo Nation. 

According to NBC, Nez said in his letter to Trump, "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.” 

Carl Roessel Slater, a Navajo council delegate, told NBC he worries that Mitchell’s execution will set a dangerous precedent. “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,” he said. 

The father of Mitchell’s young victim in this case, Tiffany Lee, feels differently, according to a statement he made to the Associated Press. He said he supports Mitchell’s execution as an “eye for an eye.”

"I speak for myself and for my daughter," Daniel Lee told the AP. 

According to NBC:

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.

Mitchell was the fourth federally incarcerated person to be executed over the past year following the government’s reinstatement of the death penalty in July 2019, following a 17-year pause on the practice.