In 1991, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on the church to be “alert and active regarding federal policies which... undermine Native American lives, dignity, and rights.” One effort to devalue the dignity of Native Americans is unfolding right now, as the federal government plans the execution of Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American on federal death row. Mr. Mitchell, who is Navajo, is scheduled to be executed on Aug. 26, over the objections of the Navajo Nation, for a crime committed against Navajo citizens on Navajo land.
As Catholics, we uphold that the dignity of the human person is God-given and inviolable. It is this belief that leads us to oppose the death penalty in all cases and work for its abolition worldwide in accordance with Pope Francis’ revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018. But ours is not the only tradition which espouses this hallowed tenet. Navajo culture, too, professes the sanctity of life, a teaching which undergirds the opposition of the Navajo Nation and many other tribes to the practice of capital punishment.
The federal government’s planned execution of Mr. Mitchell violates the Navajo Nation’s cultural values, serves as a manifestation of the racial oppression inflicted upon Native Americans for centuries in the United States and devalues the sacred dignity of human life.
The federal government’s planned execution of Mr. Mitchell violates the Navajo Nation’s cultural values and devalues the sacred dignity of human life.
Lezmond Mitchell and his co-defendant, Johnny Orsinger, were convicted in 2003 for the brutal killing of Alyce Slim, 63, and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee. The crime was committed on Native American territory, which, under the Federal Death Penalty Act, should have made a murder case subject to Native approval before any death sentence could be sought. (Mr. Orsinger, it should be noted, was 17 at the time of the killings and thus ineligible for a death sentence under any circumstance.)
The Navajo Nation opposes the death penalty for Mr. Mitchell. But instead of respecting the tribe’s wishes, the federal government has used a legal loophole to pursue his death sentence, trying him for carjacking resulting in death—a federal offense that did not depend on the crime occurring on tribal land—and sidestepping the Navajo Nation’s aversion to the use of capital punishment.
The death sentence for Mr. Mitchell seemed only symbolic during the federal government’s 17-year hiatus from the practice of executions. But in July 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would resume lethal injections, and Lezmond Mitchell was one of the first whose execution date was set.
The federal government has used a legal loophole to pursue his death sentence, sidestepping the Navajo Nation’s aversion to the use of capital punishment.
After a year of legal challenges, federal executions officially restarted in July 2020, drawing an outcry of Catholic opposition. (See “Sister Helen Prejean: Stop the federal killings,” published by America on July 15.) Now Mr. Mitchell stands to be executed unless President Trump commutes his sentence.
The president of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, made a personal appeal to request that clemency be granted, and letters supporting clemency have also come from the Navajo vice president, the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, the National Congress of American Indians, more than a dozen other Native American tribes and hundreds of individual Native American citizens.
Catholics can join this chorus of voices by calling for Mr. Trump to respect the God-given dignity of Mr. Mitchell by commuting his death sentence to life without the possibility of release.
Shameful as it is, the federal government’s treatment of Mr. Mitchell and its disregard for the Navajo Nation as a whole is closer to the rule than the exception. As noted in “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “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.”
The letter also says that “Native Americans experienced deep wounds in the age of colonization and expansion, wounds that largely remain unhealed and strongly impact the generations to this day.” It is easy to imagine that vestiges of this intergenerational trauma could have been present in Mr. Mitchell’s own childhood, which was spent in a home rife with abuse, addiction and mental illness.
The U.S. bishops noted that “there has been very limited formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many” from institutional racism.
One cannot ignore that these legacies of harm and oppression faced by Native Americans—regrettably, at times even perpetuated by the church—are rooted in racism, which, the U.S. bishops note, “festers in part because, as a nation, there has been very limited formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often a neglect of our history.”
Wise practitioners of restorative justice—a holistic way of responding to harm which is itself rooted in Indigenous traditions and teachings—have long noted that trauma that is not transformed will, instead, be transferred.
As Catholics, we believe that part of honoring all human life as equally made in the image of God requires us to see manifestations of racism, acknowledge our complicity in these unjust systems and then actively work to dismantle them. How we as a church and as a country take responsibility for repairing past and present harms done to Native communities and work to end the immoral system of capital punishment is the necessary, faithful and challenging work of building up a culture of life.
In the words of our bishops, “racism is a life issue.” I cannot agree more.
The Catholic Church and the Navajo Nation stand together in opposition to the execution of Lezmond Mitchell because it, like the racism which brought his death sentence to pass, erodes the sanctity of human life.
What a travesty that the pleas to save Lezmond Mitchell’s life—from Catholics, people of good will, and his tribal community—have so far fallen on deaf ears.