Navajo Nation asks Trump to spare Native American from execution

(Reuters) - Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to spare the life of the only Native American on federal death row, arguing the U.S. government was infringing tribal sovereignty.

Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo, was convicted of murdering a 9-year-old Navajo girl, Tiffany Lee, and her grandmother Alyce Slim in 2001 on the tribe’s territory, which spans four states in the U.S. Southwest.

Mitchell, 38, was sentenced to death in an Arizona federal court over the objection of Navajo officials, who said the tribe’s cultural values prohibited taking human life “for vengeance.”

Under Trump, the Justice Department resumed executions this year after a 17-year hiatus, killing three condemned men in July at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Last month, the department scheduled Mitchell’s execution for Aug. 26, angering some Navajo officials.

“It’s a complete slap in the face to our values and our justice system and the deference that’s owed to us as guest of ours on this land,” Carl Slater, a member of the Navajo Nation Council who represents Mitchell’s home district, said in an interview.

Nez is set to address a clemency hearing before the Office of the Pardon Attorney on Tuesday. In a letter to Trump, Nez said a sentence of life in prison would be “appropriate to begin to restore harmony and balance to the affected families and to the inherent sovereignty of the Navajo Nation.”

Under the Major Crimes Act, the federal government has jurisdiction over certain major crimes occurring on Indian territory, including murder, but usually cannot pursue capital punishment for a Native American for a crime on tribal land without the tribe’s consent.

In Mitchell’s case, Navajo officials said they would not give their consent. But John Ashcroft, attorney general under then-President George W. Bush, overrode the objection of federal prosecutors in Arizona.

In what Mitchell’s lawyers deride as a legal loophole, federal prosecutors successfully pursued a capital case against Mitchell for carjacking, a capital crime that is not among those listed in the Major Crimes Act.

Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bernadette Baum