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U.S. Executes Lezmond Mitchell Over Objections Of The Navajo Nation

It’s the first time in modern history that the federal government has executed a Native American for a crime committed against another Native American on tribal land, his attorneys say.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

The federal government has executed Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American on federal death row, despite objections from Navajo leaders who said the killing breached tribal sovereignty.

Mitchell, who is Navajo, was pronounced dead by a lethal injection of pentobarbital at 6:29 p.m. Eastern at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, according to the Associated Press, which had a reporter present. He declined to make a final statement. Mitchell, 38, was the fourth prisoner executed by the U.S. government this summer following a 17-year hiatus on federal executions. 

On Tuesday night, the Supreme Court declined to review Mitchell’s claim that racial bias may have tainted the jury (only one juror was Native American), clearing the way for his execution. Mitchell had also petitioned President Trump for clemency. Trump did not rule on that petition before Mitchell’s death. 

Mitchell was sentenced to death in 2003 for the 2001 murders of 63-year-old Alyce Slim and her nine-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee. Both were members of Navajo Nation. Prosecutors said that Mitchell, along with his co-defendant Johnny Orsinger, hitched a ride with Slim back to the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Once there, they stabbed Slim more than 30 times and killed Lee by slitting her throat and crushing her head with a rock, prosecutors said. Mitchell, who confessed his role in the crimes after being held 25 days in a Navajo jail without access to an attorney, has argued that Orsinger was the mastermind of the killings. Orsinger was 16 at the time of the crimes and received a life sentence because of his age. 

Mitchell’s attorneys say that he’s the first Native American in modern history to be executed by the federal government for a crime committed against another Native American on tribal land. Under the Clinton-era Federal Death Penalty Act, the government is prohibited from seeking the death penalty for a set of crimes committed on tribal land unless tribal leaders opt in. In 2002, the Attorney General of Navajo Nation asked the federal government not to seek the death penalty against Mitchell because capital punishment went against the tribe’s cultural and religious values. Though the U.S. Attorney for Arizona said he would defer to the tribe’s position, the U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, overrode him and sought a death sentence by charging Mitchell with carjacking resulting in death, a capital crime that does not require the permission of tribal leaders for a death sentence. 

The courts have denied Mitchell’s appeals on claims that his death sentence infringes on the tribe’s sovereignty, but in April, two judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in concurring opinions of their concerns about his death sentence. “The imposition of the death penalty in this case is a betrayal of a promise made to the Navajo Nation, and it demonstrates a deep disrespect for tribal sovereignty,” wrote Judge Morgan Christen.

In the month leading up to Mitchell’s execution, tribal leaders urged Trump to commute his sentence. “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,” wrote Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a July 31 letter. 

The U.S.government is scheduled to execute Keith Dwayne Nelson on Friday.