The Justice Department on Wednesday scheduled the execution of Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American on federal death row, for late August, his attorneys said Wednesday.
If the execution, scheduled for August 26, proceeds, it will be the first time in modern American history the government executed a Native American tribal member.
Mitchell is a member of the Navajo Nation. Under federal law, the U.S. government cannot pursue a death sentence for a capital murder committed on Native American land without the tribe’s consent.
Justice Department prosecutors in the early 2000s got around that restriction, however, by seeking the death penalty connected to a lesser charge.
Mitchell’s attorneys, Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi, accused Justice Department prosecutors of exploiting a legal loophole.
“The federal government’s announcement that it now plans to execute Lezmond Mitchell demonstrates the ultimate disrespect for the Navajo Nation’s values and sovereignty,” they said in a statement.
The Justice Department pushed back in a statement, saying that Mitchell’s conviction and death sentence were affirmed on appeal by “every court that considered them.”
A federal jury in 2003 convicted Mitchell of the grisly murders of a woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter on the Navajo Nation.
The Arizona jury found him guilty of 11 crimes including, murder, carjacking resulting in death, kidnapping and armed robbery.
Mitchell and others plotted to steal a vehicle to use in a robbery on the Navajo Nation. He and an accomplice abducted Alyce Slim, 63, and her granddaughter in her GMC pickup truck.
Prosecutors said Mitchell stabbed Ms. Slim 33 times and then dumped her body in the back of the truck where they forced the granddaughter to sit with the body.
Then they slit the girl’s throat twice after telling her to, “lay down and die,” according to court records When she did not die, they dropped heavy rocks on her head, killing her, according to court records.
Three days later, Mitchell and two other men robbed a store at gunpoint, fleeing the scene in Ms. Slim’s truck.
A federal appeals court in May upheld Mitchell’s execution, denying his claim of the jury in Arizona was racially biased against him because only one of the jurors was Native American.
Under federal law, prosecutors must seek tribal approval of a death sentence in murder or other major crimes. But that rule did not apply to the carjacking charge, which were relatively new at the time.
The Navajo Nation opposes the death penalty and would not grant permission to execute Mitchell for murder, so prosecutors sought it on the carjacking conviction.
Mitchell’s attorneys say he should be spared the death penalty because it violates the United States’ agreement with Navajo Nation and they want more time to investigate allegations of racial bias among jurors.
“Under these circumstances, allowing Mr. Mitchell’s execution to go forward would be a grave injustice and an unprecedented affront to tribal sovereignty, and it should not be permitted to proceed. We will continue to pursue all available avenues of relief for Mr. Mitchell from his unconstitutional convictions and death sentence.,” they said.