U.S. government executes inmate despite objections by Navajo Nation

A sign points to the Federal Correctional Complex, where the federal execution chamber is located, in Terre Haute, Ind., on July 15. File Photo by Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE
A sign points to the Federal Correctional Complex, where the federal execution chamber is located, in Terre Haute, Ind., on July 15. File Photo by Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE

Aug. 26 (UPI) -- The U.S. government carried out its fourth execution of the year Wednesday -- that of the only Native American on death row -- despite objections by Navajo leaders.

Lezmond Mitchell, 37, died by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. He was sentenced to death for the 2001 murder of two Navajo people -- 63-year-old Alyce Slim and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee -- on reservation land.


The execution came hours after the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against defense attorneys, who sought more time while his clemency petition was considered. His lawyers also previously requested two reprieves from the Supreme Court.

Mitchell's lawyers, Jonathan Arminoff and Celeste Bacchi, said the federal government's actions Wednesday contributed to a "long history of injustices against Native American people."

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"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," they said. "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."


Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez last month asked President Donald Trump to grant Mitchell clemency, citing the tribe's stance against the death penalty. Navajo leaders argue the U.S. government shouldn't be able to execute Mitchell.

"The Navajo Nation is respectfully requesting a commutation of the death sentence and the imposition of a life sentence for Mr. Mitchell," Nez and Navajo Vice President Myron Lizer said in a letter to Trump on July 31.

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"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. ... We need to address this issue to move forward in our trust of our federal partners and to continue to work on the importance of protecting our people."

Under the Federal Death Penalty Act, the U.S. government can't seek the death penalty for murder committed on tribal land unless said tribe allows it. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona originally didn't seek the death penalty for Mitchell, but received pressure from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to do so.


Aminoff and Bacchi said that since the Navajo Nation opposed 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.

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Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Mitchell's execution demonstrates "the arbitrariness and unfairness of the federal death penalty."

"The Navajo Nation did not consent to the use of the death penalty for murders on their lands and repeatedly made their objections clear to federal prosecutors," he said. "Yet, in an action that was legal but deceitful, the Department of Justice used a 1990s loophole in the law to seek the death penalty against Mitchell for carjacking, instead of murder.

"Then, after the Navajo Nation and tribal governments across the country urged the President to respect tribal values and culture by commuting Mitchell's sentence, the government compounded the insult by executing him anyway without even the decency of making a decision on his clemency petition."

Defense attorneys also sought stays from the Supreme Court -- one to give courts time to consider their claim that they should be able to speak to jurors in Mitchell's trial about whether racial bias played a part in his conviction, and one to consider a dispute over the interpretation of the Federal Death Penalty Act.


The high court denied both requests late Tuesday.

Mitchell was the fourth person put to death after the resumption of federal executions last 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 last month.

A juvenile accomplice in the murders of Slim and Tiffany, who was ineligible for the death penalty, pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence.

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