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Execution date is set for the only Native American on death row

The only Native American on federal death row is scheduled to be executed in late August, the U.S. government announced Wednesday. 

Navajo man Lezmond Mitchell, 37, is set to die on August 26 by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terra Haute, Indiana, where he’s being held.

If it proceeds it will be the first time in modern American history the government executed a Native American tribe member. 

Mitchell is among the first handful of inmates set to be put to death after the Trump administration restored federal executions after an informal, 17-year moratorium. 

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.

However, tribal officials and even the victims’ family have opposed the death penalty. 

‘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,’ his attorneys, Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi said in a statement Wednesday shared with

Native American tribes for decades have been able to tell federal prosecutors if they want a death sentence considered for certain crimes on their land. Nearly all, including the Navajo Nation, have rejected that option. 

Mitchell was convicted in the murders of Navajo woman Alyce Slim, 63, and her nine-year-old granddaughter in October 2001 on the reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

He and an accomplice abducted Slim with the plan to use her vehicle in a robbery of a local trading post. 

Prosecutors said the two fatally stabbed Slim and slit the girl’s throat. Their beheaded, mutilated bodies were found in a shallow grave on the Navajo Nation. 

Mitchell was convicted of carjacking resulting in death – a crime that carries a possible death sentence no matter where it happens, meaning the tribe had no avenue to object. 

Mitchell has been spared temporarily by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where his attorneys argued they should be able to interview jurors for potential racial bias.

Mitchell lost the bid in late April, but the case hasn’t technically been closed, preserving a stay of execution.  

His attorneys have asked the appeals court to essentially keep the stay in place while they seek review at the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. attorney in Arizona urged the appeals court Wednesday to make a quick decision.

His attorneys have said he had no history of violence and wasn’t the primary aggressor.

‘Mr. Mitchell was just 20 at the time of the crime with no history of violence, while his juvenile co-defendant, who was the primary aggressor and had previously murdered two people in an unrelated incident, received a sentence of life imprisonment,’ his attorneys said in the Wednesday statement.

His attorneys stressed the execution would be a violation of the Federal Death Penalty Act, in which Congress promised that no Native American would be subjected to the death penalty for a crime committed against a fellow Native American on Native American land unless the tribe consented.

In the attack Mitchell’s victims were Native American and the murders took place on Native land. 

‘In what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals referred to as a “betrayal of a promise made to the Navajo Nation,” the Department of Justice exploited a legal loophole and sought the death penalty against Mr. Mitchell for the federal crime of carjacking over the objection of the Navajo Nation, the victims’ family, and the local United States Attorney’s Office,’ Mitchell’s attorneys said.

Mitchell is scheduled to be put to death in the same week as Keith Dwayne Nelson, who was convicted of kidnapping a 10-year-old girl while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raping her in a forest behind a church, then strangling her. 

Three other federal inmates were put to death earlier this month – Dustin Honken, Wesley Purkey and Daniel Lewis Lee. All were convicted of killing children.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr noted Wednesday that courts repeatedly have ruled against Mitchell.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Carl Slater, whose grandparents testified against capital punishment in Mitchell’s trial as educators, has been pushing the tribe to request clemency from the federal government and affirm its position against the death penalty.

If the execution moves forward, Slater said it would send a message that the federal government has no problem using loopholes to infringe on the tribe’s sovereignty.

‘This completely conflicts with our values. The government has an obligation to express our values and reflect them. That’s not just to our citizens, that’s to other sovereigns that have these relationships,’ he said.

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