Execution Date Set For Only Native American On Federal Death Row

Lezmond Mitchell’s lawyers argue the death penalty “demonstrates the ultimate disrespect for the Navajo Nation’s values and sovereignty.”

July 31, 2020

View outside the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex, Indiana [SOPA Images/Getty]

View outside the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex, Indiana [SOPA Images/Getty]

By: Aaron Rasmussen

The U.S. government announced Wednesday that the sole Native American on federal death row is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Aug. 26. The decision follows the recent end of a 17-year hiatus on federal executions.

Lezmond Mitchell, a 38-year-old Navajo man, is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, on charges he murdered Alyce Slim, 63, and her granddaughter, Tiffany Lee, 9, during a carjacking. Like Mitchell, the two were Navajo Nation residents.

On October 28, 2001, Slim and Lee were driving to Twin Lakes, New Mexico, after paying a visit to a traditional medicine person in nearby Tohatchi. At some point during their trip, according to court records, hitchhikers Mitchell and Johnny Orsinger got into the grandmother’s truck.

The Arizona Republic reported that Slim stopped near the New Mexico border in Sawmill, Arizona, so the men could get out, but they instead stabbed her 33 times. Mitchell then drove the truck into the mountains, where he slit the granddaughter’s throat. When she struggled to survive, Orsinger used rocks to end her life, and the men buried the victims’ mutilated bodies in a shallow grave.

Mitchell was convicted of 11 crimes, including carjacking resulting in death, murder, and kidnapping. A United States District Court judge sentenced him to death. Orsinger received a sentence of life behind bars since he was considered a juvenile at the time and ineligible for the death penalty.

In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled Mitchell’s execution, scheduled for that year, be postponed after his lawyers argued a mostly white jury may have been biased during the trial. “Mitchell was ultimately tried before a jury with only one Native American member regarding crimes committed on Native American land with Native American victims,” his lawyers wrote in a motion, the Arizona Republic reported.

This spring, the 9th Circuit ruled against Mitchell, citing his failure to prove the claim. While Judge Morgan Christen conceded the death penalty went against the desires of both the Navajo Nation and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, she pointed out that Mitchell’s death sentence was not for the murders but for carjacking, “a crime of nationwide applicability.”

According to a statement from Mitchell’s lawyers obtained by Newsweek, the Navajo Nation is against capital punishment and the federal government’s decision to again move forward with the execution based on the carjacking charge “demonstrates the ultimate disrespect for the Navajo Nation’s values and sovereignty.”

“With the enactment of the Federal Death Penalty Act, Congress made a commitment to the Native American peoples that no Native American would be subjected to the death penalty for a crime committed against a fellow Native American on Native American land unless the tribe consented,” the attorneys wrote.

“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,” they added.

Despite the legal decision, a stay of execution technically remains in place until the 9th Circuit officially closes the case. If Mitchell is put to death at the end of August, it would be the first government execution of a Native American tribal member in modern U.S. history, according to The Washington Times.

Read more: TIME

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