Indianz.Com Video: Myron Lizer | Republican National Convention #RNC2020

Navajo Nation leader promotes Donald Trump as tribal citizen is set for federal execution

With the life of one of his own in the hands of Donald Trump, Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation addressed fellow Republicans on the second day of their party's nominating convention.

Speaking via video from the New Mexico portion of the reservation, Lizer made history as the first tribal leader with a prime-time slot at the Republican National Convention. He praised the Trump administration for its efforts in Indian Country, pointing to the the recent passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, which set aside $8 billion for tribes to address the impacts of COVID-19 in their communities.

"President Trump delivered the largest financial funding package ever to Indian Country," Lizer said of a law that Congress wrote and sent to the White House as the pandemic took hold in America in March.

"The $8 billion in CARES Act funding to Indian County was a great start in alleviating the devastating effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on our Indian tribes," Lizer added.

Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation delivered his video address to the Republican National Convention from Shiprock, on the New Mexico portion of the reservation. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

And in a shot to the government's history of broken promises to tribes and their citizens, Lizer said: "The Navajo Nation once led the nation in per capita positive cases because of the health disparities that previous administrations failed to improve."

“Whenever we meet with President Trump, he has always made it a priority to repair the relationship with our federal family," Lizer asserted.

But the speech, which lasted a little under two and a half minutes, highlighted the limited ability of Lizer's efforts to impact life-or-death decisions made by Trump. On the same day of the GOP address, the president's administration pressed forward with the execution of Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo man who is the only Native American on federal death row.

In doing so, the U.S. Department of Justice said there was no need to address whether the Navajo Nation's sovereignty mattered. Lizer, in a letter to Trump, had in fact argued that his people's inherent rights to determine the fate of their own was being "marginalized."

"We need to address this issue to move forward in our trust of our federal partners and to continue to work on the importance of protecting our People," Lizer wrote in a July 31 letter to Trump that was also signed by Navajo President Jonathan Nez.

And in another sign of Lizer's lack of influence, Trump on Tuesday night utilized the power of his office to do for someone else what he has so far declined to due for Mitchell. During the RNC, the president announced a pardon for Jon Ponder, who was convicted of robbing a bank not long after the Navajo citizen was tried for two brutal deaths on the reservation.

“We believe that each person is made by God for a purpose,” Trump said in a video filmed at the White House. “I will continue to give all Americans, including former inmates, the best chance to build a new life and achieve their own American dream, and a great American dream it is.”

Mitchell's convictions for the 2001 murders of 63-year-old Alyce Slim and her 9-year-old granddaughter have been upheld repeatedly by the federal courts. But he was not placed on death row for those horrific crimes -- instead, his capital punishment was linked to carjacking.

In taking that route, the George W. Bush administration avoided having to seek the Navajo Nation's consent before executing a tribal citizen. The section of federal law requiring tribal approval, or opt-in to the death penalty, did not have to be invoked.

"The federal government betrayed a promise when it sought the death penalty against Lezmond Mitchell nearly two decades ago," former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and former U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, wrote on Indianz.Com on Wednesday. "Today, it has the opportunity to make amends and keep that promise by halting his execution."

"It costs little to halt the execution of Lezmond Mitchell, a result that would both respect the sovereign dignity of a tribal nation and do the right thing for Mr. Mitchell," Feingold and Harper added.

Lezmond has made additional efforts to halt his execution. But on Tuesday night, as the RNC was underway, his appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court were denied, though Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the Trump administration's revival of the federal death penalty warrants a closer look at the long-dormant practice.

"I believe that this court should address this issue in an appropriate case," Sotomayor wrote, stressing that Mitchell did not "adequately" present his questions as part of his case.

Separately, Mitchell filed a new lawsuit on Tuesday, attempting to prevent his death. But a federal judge on Wednesday morning refused to grant the temporary restraining order his legal team was seeking against the Trump administration.

"At the time Mr. Mitchell was sentenced, the government was not carrying out executions for federal prisoners sentenced to death. But in late July 2019, for the first time in over fifteen years, the Department of Justice announced its plans to execute five federal inmates," Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who presided over the landmark Indian trust fund lawsuit for most of its history, pointed out.

It was U.S. Attorney General William Barr who resumed the federal death penalty. He described Mitchell and four other federal inmates as "murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding."

"The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system," Barr said at the time in announcing Mitchell was going to be put to death later in 2019.

Lezmond Charles Mitchell, age 38, has been the only Native American on federal death row. He is being held at a high security U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Mitchell won a temporary reprieve when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on his execution last October. He then argued that his trial was tainted by possible racial bias among the jurors who heard his case.

The 9th Circuit upheld Mitchell's death sentence in an April 30 decision. A panel of three judges found no reason to reopen the case based on a racial bias claim, though two members called for a fresh examination of the tribal sovereignty issues at play.

"In my view, it is worth pausing to consider why Mitchell faces the prospect of being the first person to be executed by the federal government for an intra-Indian crime, committed in Indian country, by virtue of a conviction for carjacking resulting in death," Judge Morgan Christen wrote in a concurrence.

"When the sovereign nation upon whose territory the crime took place opposes capital punishment of a tribal member whose victims were also tribal members because it conflicts with that nation’s 'culture and religion,' a proper respect for tribal sovereignty requires that the federal government not only pause before seeking that sanction, but pause again before imposing it," Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote in his concurrence. "That is particularly true when imposition of the death penalty would contravene the express wishes of several members of the victims’ family."

Mitchell's petition to the Supreme Court to overturn the 9th Circuit, however, was denied without comment on Tuesday night. A separate application, the one about which Justice Sotomayor wrote, also was denied.

As the Supreme Court push was underway, following the 9th Circuit's refusal to rehear the case, Barr rescheduled Mitchell's execution for August 26. He is set to be put to death at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

With legal appeals almost completely exhausted, Mitchell's last hope lies with Donald Trump. Barring a last-minute intervention, the Navajo man will be put to death at 6pm Eastern, shortly before the Republican Party opens the third night of the convention. He will have died at the age of 38.

“I’m excited to endorse President Trump’s re-election," Lizer said on Tuesday night. "And Mr. President, we look forward to hosting you very soon to come visit our land we call Dine’tah."

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