July 29 (UPI) -- The U.S. Bureau of Prisons on Wednesday scheduled the execution of a 37-year-old man who, if put to death next month, would be the first Native American executed by the federal government in the modern era.
Lezmond Mitchell is set to die by lethal injection Aug. 26 at the U.S. Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Ind. He was sentenced to death for the 2001 murder of two Navajo people -- a woman and her granddaughter -- on reservation land.
The U.S. government scheduled Mitchell's death to occur two days before what was expected to be the next federal execution, that of Keith Dwayne Nelson on Aug. 28.
Attorney General William Barr resumed federal executions this month after a 17-year hiatus. The Bureau of Prisons executed three men -- Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey and Dustin Lee Honken -- within a span of a week. The men sued over the government's decision to use a single-drug lethal injection protocol, saying it violated the law which requires federal executions to use the same method as the individual states where the murders were committed.
If his execution proceeds, Mitchell will be the fourth federal execution this year and the first Native American to be executed in modern U.S. history, his lawyers said.
Under the Federal Death Penalty Act, the U.S. government can't seek the death penalty for crimes committed on tribal land unless said tribe allows it. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona originally didn't seek the death penalty, but received pressure from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to do so.
Defense attorneys Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi said that since the Navajo Nation was against the death penalty in Mitchell's case, the federal government used a "loophole" to charge him with a lesser crime -- carjacking resulting in death. This allowed the government to seek the death penalty without tribal approval.
"In what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals referred to as a 'betrayal of a promise made to the Navajo Nation,' the Department of Justice exploited a legal loophole and sought the death penalty against Mr. Mitchell for the federal crime of carjacking over the objection of the Navajo Nation, the victims' family, and the local United States Attorney's Office," Aminoff and Bacchi said in a statement. "The federal government's announcement that it now plans to execute Lezmond Mitchell demonstrates the ultimate disrespect for the Navajo Nation's values and sovereignty."
The defense team also accused the U.S. government of misconduct for allegedly jailing and questioning Mitchell for 25 days without providing him a lawyer and preventing Navajos from serving on his jury.
"Under these circumstances, allowing Mr. Mitchell's execution to go forward would be a grave injustice and an unprecedented affront to tribal sovereignty, and it should not be permitted to proceed. We will continue to pursue all available avenues of relief for Mr. Mitchell from his unconstitutional convictions and death sentence," the attorneys said.
Mitchell and co-defendant Johnny Orsinger were convicted in 2003 for the deaths of Alyce Slim, 63, and her granddaughter Tiffany Lee, 9.
The two men stabbed Slim dozens of times before stealing her vehicle and driving it to another location where they stabbed and beat the girl to death and dismembered their bodies to prevent identification. Mitchell and Orsinger used the vehicle to commit a robbery and when they were caught by police, Mitchell led them to the buried bodies.
Orsinger, who was a juvenile at the time, was sentenced to life in prison.