The following letter was sent to the White House, Department of Justice, and Department of Interior requesting clemency for Lezmond Mitchell.
August 20, 2020
The Honorable Donald J. Trump
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Re: United States of America v. Lezmond Charles Mitchell
Dear Mr. President,
On behalf of the Native American Rights Fund and our allied organizations signing below, we strongly urge you to commute the sentence of Lezmond Mitchell, a member of the Navajo Nation, from the death penalty to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Our request is even more urgent since Mr. Mitchell’s date of execution is August 26, 2020, just one week away. Mr. Mitchell is the only tribal citizen on federal death row. His death sentence was imposed for a crime that occurred against Navajo Nation citizens on Navajo Nation reservation lands, and the Navajo Nation has consistently opposed the death sentence in this case.
The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 generally requires the Tribal Nations to “opt in” to the federal death penalty for major crimes committed on Indian country, including murder under the Major Crimes Act. 18 U.S.C. § 3598. This provision appropriately requires that the federal government defer to Tribal Nations on whether to seek capital sentences. Congress’s intent in § 3598 was to respect the sovereign wishes of Indian nations regarding the imposition of the death penalty on a tribal member for crimes committed by Indians against Indians in Indian country. Thus, when certain major crimes, such as murder, are committed in Indian country between Indians, the death penalty can only apply when the Tribal Nation whose land the crime occurred on has chosen to “opt-in” to have the death penalty apply.
The Navajo Nation has never “opted in” to the federal death penalty and has consistently opposed capital punishment on cultural and religious grounds. In this case, the United States charged Mr. Mitchell with carjacking resulting in death, under a federal statute of general applicability, rather than charging Mr. Mitchell with murder under the Major Crimes Act, in order to avoid § 3598 and obtain a death sentence despite the Navajo Nation’s objections.
Our organizations are firmly committed to the rule of law. Section 3598 of the Federal Death Penalty Act underscores the sovereign-to-sovereign relationship between Tribal Nations and the federal government. Yet in this instance, the law was circumvented, and the Navajo Nation’s sovereign and statutorily designated rights were ignored. The U.S. government’s decision to pursue a death sentence in Mr. Mitchell’s case contravenes both the Navajo Nation’s sovereign prerogatives—as recognized by Congress in § 3598—and the federal policy of tribal self-determination in general.
The Navajo Nation has consistently voiced its opposition to the death penalty in Mr. Mitchell’s case from 2002 to the present, most recently in letters to you from Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez (dated July 31, 2020) and Navajo Nation Speaker Seth Damon (dated August 16, 2020). It is highly irregular and unjust that Mr. Mitchell now faces the ultimate penalty of death when his Tribe, the Navajo Nation, has persistently and emphatically stated its opposition to capital punishment. We urge you to give deference to the Navajo Nation—one sovereign to another.
Mr. President, only you in this late hour has the authority to intercede and afford full respect and comity to the Navajo Nation’s request for Executive Clemency for Mr. Mitchell with a commutation of the death penalty sentence replaced with life imprisonment, a position supported by the victim’s family. We urge you to commute Mr. Mitchell’s death sentence. Thank you for your consideration.
John E. Echohawk
Native American Rights Fund
Director, Capital Punishment Project
American Civil Liberties Union
Norman L. Reimer
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
ACLU of New Mexico