Lone Native American On US Federal Death Row Executed

Lezmond Mitchell
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By Jonathan Allen

Terre Haute, Indiana, Thurs. Aug. 27, 2020 (Reuters) – The United States executed the only Native American on federal death row on Wednesday over opposition from the Navajo Nation, which accuses the government of violating tribal sovereignty.

Lezmond Mitchell, a 38-year-old Navajo and convicted murderer, was pronounced dead at 6:29 p.m. EDT (2229 GMT) after being administered lethal injections of pentobarbital in the Department of Justice’s execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, according to a media witness.

He was the fourth man to be executed by the U.S. government this summer after the administration of President Donald Trump ended an informal 17-year hiatus, which had been caused in part by legal challenges to lethal injection protocols and difficulties obtaining deadly drugs. Prior to July, there had only been three federal executions since 1963, all between 2001 and 2003.

Mitchell’s lawyers and Jonathan Nez, the Navajo Nation president, had asked Trump, a long-time advocate of capital punishment for serious crimes, for clemency.

On Tuesday night, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his bid for a stay based on his lawyers’ argument that racial bias may have tainted the jury at his trial.

Mitchell and an accomplice, Johnny Oslinger, were convicted of murdering a 9-year-old Navajo girl, Tiffany Lee, and her grandmother Alyce Slim in 2001 on the tribe’s territory, which spans four states in the U.S. Southwest.

According to prosecutors, the men had been hitchhiking before they stabbed Slim more than 30 times after she gave them a ride. They put the body in the backseat of her truck alongside the granddaughter as they drove elsewhere before killing the girl later and decapitating both bodies.

Mitchell was sentenced to death in an Arizona federal court over the objection of Navajo officials, who said the tribe’s cultural values prohibited taking human life “for vengeance.” At least 13 other tribes joined the Navajo Nation in urging Trump this month to commute Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison.

Oslinger was a teenager at the time and ineligible for the death sentence.

Under the Major Crimes Act, the federal government has jurisdiction over certain major crimes occurring on Indian territory, including murder but usually cannot pursue capital punishment for a Native American for a crime on tribal land without the tribe’s consent.

Navajo officials, along with leaders of other tribes, have opposed the death penalty, including in Mitchell’s case. But John Ashcroft, attorney general under then-President George W. Bush, overrode federal prosecutors in Arizona who said they would defer to the tribe’s position against pursuing a capital case.

In what Mitchell’s lawyers deride as a legal loophole, federal prosecutors successfully pursued a capital case against Mitchell for carjacking, a crime that is not among those listed in the Major Crimes Act.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Grant McCool and Tom Brown)

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