Denver Newsroom, Aug 25, 2020 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- Catholics are joining Native American leaders in calling for mercy for a Navajo man who is sentenced to die in a federal execution this week. The Navajo Nation objects to the execution.
Lezmond Mitchell, 38, who committed a double murder in 2001 on tribal land, is scheduled to be executed in Terre Haute, Ind., Aug. 26. The federal government resumed executions in July 2020, the first since 2003.
A Navajo lawmaker told CNA that traditional Navajo beliefs forbid the use of capital punishment.
“We believe that life is sacred, and that killing is kind of an unholy and inhuman act, full stop,” Carl Slater, a representative in the Navajo Nation Council, told CNA in an Aug. 25 interview.
“So it’s not something we should use as a form of punitive justice,” he said, adding that the Navajo justice system is based more on a model of rehabilitative and restorative justice practices.
The Navajo Nation is a sovereign entity, with a distinct government, that extends into three states— New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.
In addition to serving in the nation’s legislative body, Slater also serves as Vice-Chair of the Health, Education, and Human Services committees of the Navajo Nation. He said under the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act, the federal government must have the Native American tribe’s consent to seek a death penalty prosecution of a Native American citizen.
The Navajo Nation, citing the need to protect life, or “iina,” has consistently objected to Mitchell’s death sentence, requesting he instead receive life imprisonment.
“Punitive justice, as expressed by western and United States’ influences, does not create harmony and serves to primarily reinforce discord within society,” a proposed Navajo Nation Council resolution reads.
To date, only one out the nearly 600 Native American tribes across the country have chosen to opt-in to federal death penalty prosecutions.
The federal government’s planned execution of Mitchell— who is the only Native American on federal death row— is “a profound insult to Navajo sovereignty,” Slater wrote in an Aug. 19 op-ed in the New York Times.
“It’s very important to the Navajo Nation because [we] never opted into this, and it will be precedent-setting in that the federal government will seek to get its objective no matter the wishes and commitments made to the Nation under law,” Slater told CNA.
Mitchell, who is Navajo and was 20 years old at the time of the 2001 crime, stabbed a 63-year-old Navajo woman several dozen times, stole their car and drove it into the mountains before slitting the throat of her nine-year-old granddaughter.
Mitchell’s co-defendent— whom the prosecutor reportedly acknowledged was the primary assailant— was a juvenile at the time of the murder, and is currently serving a life sentence.
It was initially widely reported that a family member of the victims had publicly objected to the death penalty conviction. But in recent days, lawyers representing the 9-year-old’s parents have said that Mitchell’s attorneys do not speak for the victim’s family. The lawyers have not publicly clarified the family’s position on the matter.
Mitchell was convicted over 17 years ago on several counts, including murder, kidnapping, and carjacking resulting in death— the latter of which is a federal offense. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit determined that the carjacking charge constituted a “crime of nationwide applicability,” and thus constituted an exception whereby the federal prosecutors could seek the death penalty without the tribe’s consent.
Though the federal government says Mitchell confessed to the murders, court documents suggest that Mitchell’s confession— obtained after multiple weeks of interrogation— was not taped, and was not written in his handwriting.
In addition, Mitchell had signed a waiver of his Miranda rights— which includes the right to an attorney, and the right to remain silent— which a prominent Navajo lawyer recently said may have been due to a key cultural component at play.
“In Native cultures, it is considered honorable to tell the truth, so Natives accused of crimes might confess or plead guilty right away and without a lawyer,” Raymond Austin, a former justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, told AZCentral.
Mitchell’s lawyers have accused federal prosecutors of exploiting “loopholes” in order to put Mitchell to death, despite the tribe’s wishes. They also criticized the fact that only one member of Mitchell’s jury was a member of his tribe; the rest were white.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, in a July letter to U.S. President Donald Trump, strongly criticized the federal government’s decision to go ahead with the execution, saying that in addition to violating Navajo beliefs, Mitchell’s execution would undermine tribal sovereignty.
The Navajo Nation Council, of which Slater is a part, has also written to Trump to ask him to commute Mitchell’s sentence.
Slater said it is still unclear whether the Trump administration will accept Mitchell’s plea for clemency. Byron Shorty, communications director for the Navajo Nation Office of the Speaker, told The Republic on Tuesday that it has not received any direct response from the White House.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Bishop James Wall of Gallup is leading a virtual prayer vigil on the afternoon of Aug. 26 ahead of the scheduled execution.
The idea of the prayer vigil, Wall told CNA, is to pray for Mitchell’s conversion, for healing for the victims’ family, and for conversion of the hearts of the executioners.
The vigil was organized by the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a Catholic group which works to end the death penalty. Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, CMN’s executive director, told CNA that so far about 500 people have signed up for the virtual vigil.
“Catholics need to be aware of the fact that the execution of Lezmond Mitchell, above all, is an unnecessary and avoidable attack on human dignity,” Murphy told CNA.
“This concern about human dignity is not only held by faithful Catholics, however. The Navajo Nation also professes a belief in the sanctity of human life, which grounds its objection to the execution of Lezmond Mitchell as well as its overarching opposition to the use of capital punishment.”
Murphy noted that in their 2018 pastoral letter against racism, the bishops of the United States addressed past harms committed against Native Americans, writing of “colonial and later U.S. policies toward Native American communities were often violent, paternalistic, and were directed toward the theft of their land…These policies decimated entire communities and brought about tragic death.”
“Catholics should care about the federal government’s violation of tribal sovereignty because it is, at its core, a manifestation of the of violence, oppression, and racism inflicted upon Native Americans for centuries in the United States,” Murphy said.
Murphy encouraged Catholics to pray and advocate for an end to the death penalty.
“These acts of state-sanctioned violence hold us back as a nation from honoring the God-given dignity of our brothers and sisters, even those who have committed grave harm,” she said, noting that during the government’s 17-year hiatus from executions, 10 states outlawed capital punishment and “public support for the practice has fallen to a historic low.”
Wall said the leaders of the Navajo largely agree with the Catholic Church on the sacredness of human life, from conception to natural death.
“God is the author and giver of all human life, and we’re called to be good stewards of that life,” the bishop told CNA.
Advances in the prison system allow the state to keep people safe from criminals without the use of the death penalty, which also gives those offenders and opportunity to genuinely repent, Wall said.
“It provides an opportunity for true contrition, true conversion of heart, and that opportunity to embrace Christ and the Gospel. And whenever we do something like this, when we take a life, what we also do is we don’t provide that person the opportunity to repent. And everyone has to be given that opportunity.”
The last scheduled federal execution this year is set for Aug. 28.
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