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News > U.S.

US Will Execute Only Native American on Federal Death Row

  • Navajo leaders and activists reject the federal execution of Lezmond Mitchell, to take place Wednesday evening.

    Navajo leaders and activists reject the federal execution of Lezmond Mitchell, to take place Wednesday evening. | Photo: Twitter/@KarineOmry

Published 26 August 2020

Despite opposition from the Navajo Nation, the United States government is set to execute Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American on federal death row, this Wednesday evening. 

Mitchell's lawyers and Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, have asked U.S. President Donald Trump for clemency, and Mitchell himself asked the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, to delay the execution while the request is considered.

Mitchell, 38, will be the fourth person this summer, and the 16th Native American since 1976, to face the death penalty in the United States, which until recently has undergone an informal 17-year hiatus due to legal challenges to lethal injection procedures, along with difficulty in obtaining lethal drugs.


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Mitchell, convicted of murdering nine-year-old Navajo girl Tiffany Lee and her grandmother Alyce Slim on tribal territory in 2001, was sentenced in an Arizona federal court, despite objections from Navajo leaders, who claimed that the tribe's cultural values prohibited taking human life "for vengeance."

At least 13 other tribes join the Navajo Nation in urging the Trump administration to commute Mitchell's sentence to life in prison. In contrast, many others have opposed the death penalty for crimes on the tribal territory, including in Mitchell's case.

Under the Major Crimes Act, however, the U.S. government has jurisdiction over certain major crimes occurring on tribal land, though it usually cannot pursue capital punishment for Native Americans for a crime on their land without the tribe's consent. 
Nonetheless, Attorney General under U.S. President George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, overrode federal prosecutors in Arizona who tried to defer to the tribe's position on pursuing a capital case, finding a legal loophole in the Major Crimes Act that allowed prosecutors to pursue a claim against Mitchell for carjacking, a capital offense not listed in the Act.
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