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.”
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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.”