National Congress of American Indians, Thirteen Tribes, and Hundreds of Individual Native Americans Say Stopping the August 26 Scheduled Execution will Show Respect for Tribal Sovereignty
(Washington, D.C.) Making an urgent call on President Trump to correct a gross infringement on tribal sovereignty, the National Congress of American Indians (the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities), the leaders of thirteen separate Native American tribes, and more than 230 Native American citizens from more than 90 different tribal affiliations sent letters today in support of clemency for Lezmond Mitchell. The Native American tribes issued their letters in support of the longstanding position held by the Navajo Nation that Mr. Mitchell, a Navajo tribal member, should not be executed.
Mr. Mitchell, the only Native American person under a federal death sentence, is scheduled to be executed on August 26, over the strong objection of the Navajo Nation. Mr. Mitchell’s case represents the only time the federal government has pursued a death sentence against a Native American defendant for a crime on tribal land over the tribe’s opposition.
The letter from the National Congress of American Indians can be accessed here: https://tinyurl.com/yybsxcry; the letters of support for clemency from thirteen tribes can be accessed here: https://tinyurl.com/y2hjol8l; and the sign-on letter from individual Native American citizens can be accessed here: https://tinyurl.com/yxsslbea.
“Mr. Mitchell’s death sentence deeply offends the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation as well as that of Native American Tribes around the country,” wrote the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community of Washington State. “In addition, it is an egregious example of the disparate sentencing facing Indian defendants.”
This view is echoed by the other tribes as well. The Habematolel People of Upper Lake explain, “For Indian sovereigns, this case is particularly troubling for a number of reasons.” These include not only the government’s aggressive pursuit of a death sentence over the Navajo Nation’s opposition and the objection of members of the victims’ family, but also the FBI’s abuse of the tribal justice system to continuously interrogate Mr. Mitchell, the government’s successful efforts to keep Native Americans off the jury, the likelihood that its racially charged comments allowed anti-Native American bias to influence the death verdict, Mr. Mitchell’s young age at the time of the crime, the fact that his more culpable co-defendant, a juvenile, did not face a death sentence, and the profound remorse Mr. Mitchell has expressed for his actions.
“We do not take lightly crimes like murder,” the Habematolel letter continues, but “we do respect the cultural and legal aspects advanced by the Navajo Nation” in support of clemency for Mr. Mitchell. “Your commutation of Mr. Mitchell’s sentence to life without the possibility of release is a severe punishment that respects the wishes of Navajo Nation, the Navajo people, and the victims’ families while still preserving law and order. Doing so also shows a great respect to all Indian peoples and their governments which previous administrations have ignored in this instance.”
The National Congress of American Indians letter to President Trump states: “Consistent with the position of the Navajo Nation, and with your Administration’s stated position of respect for tribal self-determination, we urge you to commute Mr. Mitchell’s death sentence.
In addition to the letters from tribal leaders, more than 230 Native American citizens representing more than 90 different tribal affiliations from 32 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada also sent a letter to President Trump today.
“Mr. Mitchell’s death sentence deeply offends the tribal sovereignty of the Navajo Nation as well as the values of many Native American people,” they wrote. “He should not be executed, and you alone have the power to show him mercy and spare his life.”
Mr. Mitchell’s clemency petition, filed on July 31, 2010, similarly urges President Trump to respect the longstanding opposition to his death sentence from the Navajo Nation, as well as the family of his victims. The clemency petition is available here: https://tinyurl.com/y6rdgqwo.
The clemency petition was supported by a letter from Navajo President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, as well as a personal appeal from President Nez to the American President. President Nez’s letter, which can be accessed here, https://tinyurl.com/y59d3a9v, states in part:
“The United States Department of Justice sought the death penalty against Mr. Mitchell despite the Navajo Nation’s public opposition, against the express wishes of the victim’s family, and ostensibly against the recommendation of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona. The Navajo Nation is respectfully requesting a commutation of the death sentence and the imposition of a life sentence for Mr. Mitchell. 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…We need to address this issue to move forward in our trust of our federal partners and to continue to work on the importance of protecting our People.”
Additionally, on August 16, 2020, the Navajo Nation Council formally joined President Nez and Vice President Lizer in requesting clemency for Mr. Mitchell. In a letter to President Trump, Speaker Seth Damon explained how the federal government’s decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Mitchell “abused the system twice; it disregarded the Navajo Nation’s position against the death penalty, and it disregarded the letter of the law that recognizes a tribe’s sovereign choice and decision in the application of that law.” The Navajo Nation Council’s letter to President Trump can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y4gyk8gf.
For more information or to speak to an attorney for Mr. Mitchell, contact Laura Burstein, Laura.Burstein@squirepb.com, (202) 669-3411, @LauraBurstein1