By Dan Peitzmeyer and Kevin Heade – Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona
Published August 23, 2020 at AZCentral.Com
Lezmond Mitchell, a member of the Navajo Nation, is scheduled to be executed on Aug. 26 for crimes committed on the Navajo reservation against other tribal members.
President Trump and Attorney General William Barr chose to include Mitchell among the first five federal death row inmates to be executed in 17 years.
Mitchell is the only Native American on federal death row.
Politics put Lezmond Mitchell on death row
He was put there through a politically motivated prosecution. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, Paul Charlton, elected not to seek the death penalty. Presumably, this decision was made because the Navajo Nation chose not to opt in to the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) to allow the death penalty in federal prosecutions of its tribal members under the Major Crimes Act.
However, in 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft overruled Charlton’s decision and insisted that Mitchell be sentenced to death under a loophole to the FDPA’s opt-in requirement by seeking a death sentence for carjacking, a federal crime of national applicability.
President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation has appealed to Trump to respect the culture, tradition, values and sovereignty of the Navajo Nation by commuting Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison.
Judge Andrew Hurwitz of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (and former vice chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court) has opined that just because the death sentence in Mitchell’s case is legal, it “does not necessarily make it right.” Several members of the victims’ family also oppose putting Mitchell to death.
Those familiar with Arizona history understand the unique relationship that Native Americans have with the federal government.
Tribal sovereignty and culture should be respected. It is an affront to the Navajo Nation to execute Lezmond Mitchell.
Science, law also support commutation
If President Trump needs more reasons to grant mercy, the advances in law and psychology merit a commutation of Mitchell’s death sentence.
Mitchell was 20 years old in 2001 when he and his accomplice committed their crimes.
The United States Supreme Court has since ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for juveniles and limits life sentences for juveniles to extreme circumstances where the defendant cannot be rehabilitated.
Yet, there is scientific consensus that the legal age of 18 is an arbitrary demarcation between youth and adulthood. Developmental maturity does not occur until the age of 25 or later.
President Trump should consider this science.
Trump has an opportunity to show that he understands his immense constitutional authority to commute federal death sentences.