By Shellsea Lomeli
TERRE HAUTE, IN – The first federal execution of a Native American in modern history took place Wednesday—condemned by the Navajo Nation as an infringement upon tribal sovereignty, because the death penalty goes against the vocalized values and beliefs of the Navajo Nation.
Ironically, on the same day that Lozmond Mitchell was executed, Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer spoke at the Republican National Convention, praising Pres. Trump who, he claimed, “has always made it a priority to repair the relationship with our federal family.”
Just last month, Lizer signed a letter of opposition to the execution sent to the Trump Administration.
Deputy Federal Public Defenders spoke out after the federal execution of Mitchell. He was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to death for the murders of a woman and her nine-year-old granddaughter. The crime occurred on Navajo lands in Arizona. Mitchell was initially arrested and held in a Navajo jail before the U.S. Dept of Justice established authority over the case.
While Navajo Nation officials opposed the death penalty because it counters Navajo values, and the assigned federal prosecutor recommended a non-capital trial, Attorney General John Ashcroft disagreed and ordered the death penalty to be sought.
Mitchell was originally scheduled to be executed in December of 2019 but it was postponed as his attorneys challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence.
Despite much push back, the Navajo man’s execution was carried out on Wednesday at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was the only Native American on death row.
Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi were Mitchell’s attorneys. They are both deputy federal public defenders based in Los Angeles.
Together, they issued a statement regarding the execution of their client.
“Today, the federal government added another chapter to its long history of injustices against Native American people,” Aminoff and Bacchi said.
“Over the steadfast objection of the Navajo Nation, and despite urgent pleas for clemency from Navajo leaders and many other Native American tribes, organizations, and citizens, the Trump Administration executed Lezmond Mitchell.”
It was reported that the victims’ family also expressed opposition toward seeking the death penalty in the case.
Mitchell was a Navajo man who committed a crime against other Navajo people on Navajo land. Because of these conditions, his attorneys argued that the execution went against tribal sovereignty which grants American Indians and Alaska Natives the right to govern themselves.
Aminoff and Bacchi called Mitchell’s execution a “gross insult to the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation.”
The tribe strongly opposed the death sentence and personally called on the President to adjust the Navajo man’s sentence to life without the possibility of release. The Trump Administration refused and Mitchell was put to death by lethal injection.
The jury Mitchell had faced was made up of 11 white people and a single Navajo. The lack of diversity raised concerns among the deputy federal public defenders.
“Mr. Mitchell’s execution came after the Supreme Court refused to allow him to interview his jurors about whether racial bias influenced their decision,” the attorneys stated. “We have little doubt that it did, because in their zealous pursuit of a death sentence for Mr. Mitchell, the federal prosecutors made arguments laced with anti-Indian stereotypes.”
If the juror interviews were permitted, Aminoff and Bacchi may have been able to utilize the case of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that statements by jurors that indicated their verdict was influenced by racial stereotypes or animus were admissible to challenge the constitutionality of a conviction.
“We hope that the future will bring greater respect for the sovereignty of Indian nations and for the traditions of their people,” Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi concluded.
In addition to the attorneys’ statement, many individuals across the nation spoke out after Lezmond Mitchell’s execution.
“Our government—which spent centuries slaughtering Native Americans, still has no respect for Native life or tribal sovereignty,” said Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee writer for publications like the Washington Post.
“This is a sad day…for the Navajo nation as a whole,” said President Johnathan Nez and Vice President Lizer of the Navajo Nation, adding, “Crimes committed on the Navajo Nation are for us to decide. Our judicial and public safety system considers restorative justice in court cases as based on our customs and traditions of hozho’ and k’e. Federal officials may not understand our family connections and our strength in keeping harmony.”
“Hozho’” is a word used by the Navajo People to describe the essence of their philosophy and “k’e” describes their kinship system.
His death was the fourth federal execution carried out by the Justice Department in 2020, after 17 years without one.
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