Barr orders resumption of federal executions; Navajo among those targeted

Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to take steps to resume executions after almost two decades, and named a Navajo double-murderer as one of the first five on death row to be put to death. (Photo by Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Marshals Service)

WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr ordered a resumption of federal executions Thursday and named a Navajo double-murderer as one of the first five death-row inmates who will be put to death.

Lezmond Mitchell will be executed on Dec. 11 with a fatal injection of pentobarbital if all goes according to the plan unveiled by the Justice Department and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Mitchell was convicted on 11 counts in connection with the grisly beating and stabbing deaths of Alyce Slim, 63, and her 9-year-old granddaughter in 2001 near Sawmill on the Navajo Nation. He is currently the only Native American on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In ordering the Bureau of Prisons to start scheduling executions again, Barr said he focused on inmates convicted of “murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society – children and the elderly.”

Barr also ordered the bureau to replace its current three-drug for executions with the single drug, that he said has been used in more than 200 executions in 14 states and has withstood legal challenges.

If the five executions occur as scheduled – beginning on Dec. 9 and continuing at regular intervals through Jan. 15 – they would be the first executions in the federal prisons in nearly two decades, Barr said.

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According to court documents, federal prosecutors in Mitchell’s case originally opted against the death penalty, in the face of opposition from the Navajo Nation and from the victims’ family. But that decision was overruled by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and prosecutors sought, and won, a death sentence in the case.

Barr’s announcement was swiftly attacked Thursday by death-penalty opponents, who said public sentiment increasingly opposes capital punishment and more states are prohibiting it.

“Year after year, we’ve seen American public opinion polls say that American people oppose the death penalty, so we are questioning the wisdom of the president kind of reinstating something that has historically proven to be arbitrary, unfair and racially biased,” said Gregory Joseph of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Other critics focused on the issue of tribal sovereignty, noting that the death penalty flies in the face of not just the Navajo but of most tribes in the nation. Mitchell and his victims were Native American and the crime occurred on Navajo lands.

“Any jurisdiction seeking to apply the death penalty for crimes that occurred on Indian Country should have the consent and the approval of the tribes … being impacted by it because it’s part of their inherent sovereignty rights to control the death penalty of their own members,” said Kevin Heade, president of Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona.

Heade said only one tribe in the nation approves of capital punishment, which has broad problems with racial inequity.

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But Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, welcomed the announcement, saying it will bring justice to those who suffered from Mitchell’s “horrific” crimes.

“Government has a solemn responsibility to administer justice for the most loathsome crimes, committed by some of our most hardened criminals,” Biggs said in a statement, before going on to applaud Barr’s “staunch commitment to the rule of law and providing justice for these victims’ families.”

The case began when Mitchell and others abducted Slim and her granddaughter on Oct. 28, 2001, in Slim’s pickup truck, which they planned to use later to rob a trading post on the Navajo Nation.

The men ended up killing Slim by stabbing her 33 times, then dumping her body in the back of the truck, where her granddaughter was forced to sit with the body. They later dragged Slim’s body out of the truck and ordered the girl to “lay down and die,” slitting her throat and then, when she did not die, dropping heavy rocks on her head to kill her.

They later tried to cover their tracks by burying their victims’ heads and hands in a hole and dragging their dismembered torsos into the woods before burning the victims’ clothes and belongings.

Mitchell and two other men were in Slim’s truck three days later when they robbed the Red Rock Trading Post at gunpoint before driving off. They later burned Slim’s truck.

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

But they 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.”

Mitchell was 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.

It was in part because of that “loophole” in federal law that an appeals court judge in 2015 argued that Mitchell should get a new trial because his attorneys were ineffective.

But his opinion was the dissent in a ruling that upheld the conviction, with the majority of court panel saying Mitchell’s attorneys were “thorough in the extreme” and had to make difficult choices to construct a defense in a crime of “unusual brutality.”

Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, the dissenting judge in that case, wrote then that Mitchell could “suffer the ignominious fate of becoming the first person to be executed for an intra-Indian crime that occurred in Indian country.”