Conviction, death sentence upheld in 2001 Navajo double-murder

WASHINGTON – An appeals court Friday upheld a federal death-row inmate’s conviction and sentence in the grisly 2001 beating and stabbing murders of a woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter on the Navajo Nation.

Lezmond Mitchell had argued that defense attorneys at his trial and sentencing were ineffective, but the majority of a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

The court said Mitchell’s attorneys were “thorough in the extreme” and had to make difficult choices to construct a defense in a crime of “unusual brutality.”

But in a harsh dissent, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said Mitchell deserves a new sentencing hearing because the defense strategy of depicting him as a “good guy” to jurors was “no strategy at all.”

Reinhardt said Mitchell was sentenced to death through a legal loophole and that “those with the greatest stake” in the case – the victims’ family and the Navajo Nation – all opposed Mitchell’s execution.

Mitchell, 33, is the only Native American on the federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Reinhardt said Mitchell could “suffer the ignominious fate of becoming the first person to be executed for an intra-Indian crime that occurred in Indian country.”

The case began when Mitchell, Johnny Orsinger and others plotted to steal a vehicle to use later to rob a trading post on the Navajo Nation. On Oct. 28, 2001, Mitchell and Orsinger abducted Alyce Slim, 63, and her 9-year-old granddaughter, in Slim’s GMC pickup truck.

Court documents say that somewhere near Sawmill, the men stabbed Slim 33 times, killing her and dumping her in the back of the truck, where they forced the granddaughter to sit with the body.

Some time later, they dragged Slim out of the truck and told the girl to “lay down and die,” when Mitchell cut her throat twice. When she did not die, both men dropped heavy rocks on her head, killing her.

The two drove off, but returned a short time later to cover their tracks, burying their victims’ heads and hands in a hole and dragging their dismembered torsos into the woods before burning the victims’ clothes and belongings.

Three days later, Mitchell and two other men robbed the Red Rock Trading Post at gunpoint, driving off in Slim’s truck, which they later burned.

Mitchell was eventually convicted on 11 counts, including two counts of first-degree murder, carjacking resulting in death and robbery, among others. He could not be executed for the murders under federal and Navajo law – but because carjacking falls under another section of federal law, he could face the death penalty for that.

The Navajo Nation opposed a death sentence as did the victims’ families, swaying the U.S. Attorney for Arizona at the time to decide against a capital case. But Reinhardt said that decision was overruled by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and the death penalty was sought.

Defense experts determined that Mitchell had mental and emotional problems and a distant mother, that he had substance-abuse issues and was likely abused as a child.

But the experts also described him as a borderline sociopath who denied he was intoxicated at the time of the killing, who talked calmly about killing the girl and who had a history of “swinging dogs and cats by their tails and then throwing them off bridges just for fun.”

The appeals court said Mitchell’s attorneys “had to walk a very careful line to avoid opening the door to the highly damaging” experts’ reports.

Rather than risk that, by introducing evidence of his upbringing that could explain his behavior, they built a defense on three themes: That Mitchell’s life had value and was worth saving, that Orsinger was the mastermind but had not been sentenced to death, and that the Navajo Nation did not want Mitchell executed.

“Considering the unusual brutality of these crimes … it is a remarkable tribute to Mitchell’s lawyers that they were able to get the jury to find several mitigating factors,” the appeals court said. “There is no showing that Mitchell’s lawyers’ strategy was unreasonable.”

But where the majority saw “effective assistance,” Reinhardt saw only a “worthless and implausible ‘good guy’ defense” that ignored all the elements that could have swayed a juror to vote against the death penalty.

Reinhardt said that federal executions are rare and reserved for crimes that have national significance, like the Boston Marathon or Oklahoma City bombers. He said Mitchell – who was 20 at the time of the killings and did not have a criminal record – “committed a horrible crime (but) it was hardly one of national import or of particular federal interest other than the fact that it involved the Navajo Nation.”

Calls to prosecutors and to Mitchell’s attorneys were not immediately returned Friday.