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Tribes Call On Trump To Cancel Execution Of Navajo Man

Window Rock on the Navajo Nation
Terry Feuerborn
Window Rock, Ariz. is the capital of the Navajo Nation. The Tribe claims over 300,000 members, around half of whom live on the reservation.

Tribes across the country are asking President Donald Trump to cancel the execution of Navajo man Lezmond Mitchell, which is set to occur on Wednesday. 

The Navajo Nation asked Trump to commute Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison, as have 13 other tribes and individual Native Americans with over 90 different affiliations. The National Congress of American Indians, which advocates for tribes across the country, also submitted a letter to Trump asking him to grant Mitchell clemency and instead commute his death sentence to life without the possibility of parole. 

Their opposition to the execution is based on the principle of sovereignty, which was codified in the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. The law allowed tribes to reject the death penalty as a punshiment for major crimes committed between tribal members on tribal lands. The Navajo Nation — along with almost every other tribe — opted out. 

But Mitchell was still sentenced to death by a jury in 2003, for murdering two other Navajo tribal members on the Nation in 2001. The 1994 law should’ve prevented him from receiving the death penalty, but U.S. prosecutors found a way around it by charging Mitchell with carjacking, an interstate crime that allowed the penalty to come back into play.

That decision cut to the heart of what it means to be a federally recognized tribe in the United States, according to Barbara Creel, a law professor at the University of New Mexico. 

“It is diminishing tribal sovereignty, and I think all tribes will see that,” Creel said. “When you ask me whether and how to punish my own people and then you don’t take that into account, [sovereignty is] non-existent.”

The Navajo Nation first asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against Mitchell in 2002, writing that putting him to death goes against the traditional Diné, or Navajo, value of hózhó, which includes beauty, health and harmony. 

“Committing a crime not only disrupts the harmony between the victim and the perpetrator but it also disrupts the harmony of the community,” wrote Levon Henry, attorney general of the Navajo Nation at the time. “The capital punishment sentence removes . . . any possibility of restoring the harmony in a society.”

Trump could act to cancel the execution up until it occurs on Wednesday.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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