Cronkite NewsLezmond Mitchell could question jurors from his trial 16 years ago about possible racial bias in their deliberations. The hearing before three judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came two days after Mitchell, the only Native American on death row in the federal prison system, had been scheduled to be executed. That execution was put on hold by the court so it could hear Mitchell’s bias arguments. But while the panel was sympathetic, the judges appeared to be having a hard time seeing how to grant Mitchell’s request, noting that it had already been turned down once by a lower court. “We take racial bias exceptionally seriously,” Judge Morgan Christen said emphatically. But she also thought Mitchell’s attorney had not shown “good cause” to suspect racial bias.
But Mitchell’s case involved a carjacking that resulted in death, and those crimes do not require tribal consultation. Court records show that then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed for the death penalty over the objections of the Navajo Nation. “I wish the government had not decided to bring this capital case over the objections of the Navajo Nation, but it did,” Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz. He pressed Aminoff to show specific examples during the case or jury deliberation that would raise questions of racial bias. “I can’t answer your question, because I haven’t been allowed to investigate,” Aminoff replied. Aminoff said the lack of an investigation, and the “systematic exclusion” of Native Americans from Mitchell’s jury were cause enough. Other judicial districts in the 9th Circuit allow investigations of juries for possible racial bias, but not Arizona, Aminoff said. “There are four people on federal death row from the 9th Circuit. Three of them come from districts that don’t bar this type of investigation at all,” Aminoff said. “Why would Mr. Mitchell need to be that one exception?” Aminoff also said that only seven of the jurors in Mitchell’s case thought the Navajo Nation’s plea to spare Mitchell’s life was valid. “That is extremely concerning, and were it not for this court’s intervention, this man would have been dead two days ago,” he said. For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.
Department of Justice: Lezmond Mitchell"Lezmond Mitchell stabbed to death a 63-year-old grandmother and forced her nine-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her lifeless body for a 30 to 40-mile drive. Mitchell then slit the girl’s throat twice, crushed her head with 20-pound rocks, and severed and buried both victims’ heads and hands. On May 8, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona found Mitchell guilty of numerous offenses, including first degree murder, felony murder, and carjacking resulting in murder, and he was sentenced to death. Mitchell’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 11, 2019."
-- Federal Government to Resume Capital Punishment After Nearly Two Decade Lapse (July 25, 2019)
9th Circuit Court of Appeals DecisionsUnited States v. Mitchell (June 19, 2015)
United States v. Mitchell (September 5, 2007)
Note: This story originally appeared on Cronkite News and is published via a Creative Commons license. Cronkite News is produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
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