Opinions and Legal Insights

Feds Plan to Execute Native American, Sidestepping Tribal Objections

A Native American murderer is to be executed by the federal government Wednesday over the objections of the Navajo Nation, which says the Justice Department is infringing on its tribal sovereignty, reports the Wall Street Journal and other media.

Lezmond Mitchell was found guilty in 2003 in the deaths of Alyce Slim, 63 years old, and her nine-year-old granddaughter Tiffany Lee. Prosecutors said that in 2001, Mitchell and a juvenile accomplice hitched a ride with the pair, before stabbing them several times and then decapitating them on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.

The victims were Navajo. Under a 1994 law, the federal government can seek the death penalty for murders on Indian reservations committed by tribal members only if the tribe on whose land the crime occurred agrees.

The Navajo Nation opposed Mitchell’s capital punishment because it ran contrary to the tribe’s culture and traditions. The Justice Department pursued the death penalty under a separate “carjacking resulting in death” charge that doesn’t require tribal approval.

Mitchell, 38, the only Native American on federal death row, is one of several inmates Attorney General William Barr said would be executed when the federal government resumed capital punishment last year after a nearly 20-year lapse. Navajo Nation Council Delegate Carl Roessel Slater worries that the DOJ approach will affect how it dealt with other crimes on tribal lands.

“The consequences could be really grave when you have the federal government creating statutes to argue one principle, and then coming in after the fact and establishing loopholes to undermine those principles and disrespect the sovereignty of tribal nations,” he said.

Various Native American tribes and Navajo officials, including current President Jonathan Nez, have urged the Trump administration to commute Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison.

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For additional Reading, see report on conference: Reporting on Tribal Justice in Native America