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Appeals court upholds death penalty for Navajo man

A divided appeals court on Wednesday upheld the murder conviction and death sentence for a Navajo man in a controversial case that was an issue in the Bush administration's firing of a U.S. Attorney.

By a 2-1 vote, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn Lezmond Mitchell's conviction and punishment for killing a 63-year-old woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter. The October 2001 crime occurred just months after Paul Charlton began serving as U.S. Attorney in Arizona.

Though it was one of his most high-profile cases, Charlton refused to seek the death penalty for Mitchell, citing the Navajo Nation's official stance against capital punishment. But he was overruled by political appointees in Washington, D.C.

Charlton's resistance, along with his views on drug trafficking and violent crime in Indian Country, was later used against him when he was fired in December 2006. Documents show that aides to outgoing U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales treated him with disdain when he sought to discuss a second death penalty case in which he was overruled.

The highly-charged nature of the dispute is underscored by the unusually lengthy opinion from the 9th Circuit -- 102 pages for the majority and 30 pages for the dissent. Tribal and federal law enforcement authorities collaborated on the investigation, which was solved in a matter of days.

Mitchell raised a number of challenges in his appeal, including collusion between tribal and federal authorities to deny him his constitutional rights, improper exclusion of jurors based on race and misconduct by the assistant U.S. attorneys who handled the trial. He also argued that he couldn't be sentenced to death due to the Navajo Nation's objections.

The majority of the 9th Circuit rejected all of the challenges. The two judges said prosecutors were just in seeking the death penalty because Mitchell's crime involved carjacking and the crossing of state lines.

"We recognize that the Navajo Nation opposes the death penalty on cultural and religious grounds," Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, a Republican appointee, wrote. "We cannot say, however, that ideological opposition to the death penalty by its own force exempts tribal members from the reach of federal criminal laws, or overrides the presumption that federal criminal laws of nationwide applicability apply to Indian tribes."

In a dissent, Stephen Reinhardt, a Democratic appointee, agreed with the majority on many points. But he said "cumulative error" in Mitchell's trial and sentencing warranted reversal of the conviction and the death penalty.

Reinhardt cited collusion between tribal and federal authorities, improper exclusion of jurors, Mitchell's absence from the death penalty proceedings and biased statements by the assistant U.S. attorneys. Charlton did not make the opening or closing arguments at issue in the appeal.

Taking everything into account, "each of the errors discussed above combined to prejudice Mitchell with respect to the jury’s final determination to impose the death penalty," Reinhardt wrote. He said he would order a new trial and, if Mitchell were convicted again, for a new sentencing hearing.

At the time of the case, John Ashcroft was serving as U.S. Attorney General. According to Charlton, he adequately discussed his objections to the death penalty to Ashcroft's aides in Washington, even though he was eventually overruled.

But after Gonzales took over, the situation changed. When Charlton sought to discuss the death penalty in a non-Indian Country case, Gonzales' aides ridiculed him in e-mails and refused to let him explain his views.

Those aides were responsible for putting Charlton and seven other U.S. Attorneys on the firing list. Five of them -- including Charlton -- were prominent members of the Department of Justice's Native American Issues subcommittee.

An aide to Gonzales later testified that the chairman of the subcommittee, former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger of Minnesota, was also targeted for firing because he spent "too much time" on Indian issues. Heffelfinger, however, resigned on his own several months before the prosecutor purge.

But his replacement on the subcommittee, former U.S. Attorney Margaret Chiara of western Michigan, was among those who were ousted. She has since accused Gonzales of lacking commitment Indian Country, where violent crime rates outpace the rest of the nation.

Gonzales met with Michigan tribal leaders last month and said he was committed to justice on reservations. But less than two weeks later, he announced he was resigning -- on the same day he scheduled a meeting with leaders of the National Congress of American Indians.

"We must have better cooperation from the DOJ on Indian issues such as resources for improved law enforcement and criminal justice in Indian Country," said NCAI President Joe Garcia after his August 27 meeting. "I hope this is a step in the right direction."

Gonzales is set to leave office on September 17.

Get the Decision:
US v. Mitchell (September 5, 2007)

Relevant Links:
U.S. Attorney, District of Arizona -