Clare Holtzman


On August 26, 2020, the only Native American on federal death row, Lezmond Mitchell was executed by the federal government for the murder of two Navajo citizens on Navajo Nation land. Federal law typically gives Tribal Nations the right to determine whether the death penalty is used against their citizens for crimes committed between Tribal citizens on Tribal land. Yet here, the federal government utilized a loophole to seek the death penalty against the Navajo Nation's wishes. Lezmond Mitchell was not a sympathetic man by any means; indeed, he brutally killed a grandmother and her young granddaughter to steal their car as a part of a larger robbery scheme. Under other circumstances, his execution may have been less controversial, yet his case exemplifies the long colonial legacy of federal overinvolvement in Tribal Nation affairs.

This paper examines the colonial legacy of federal overinvolvement in Tribal Nation criminal justice affairs and exemplifies how that history still manifests in the present through Lezmond Mitchell's case. Further, this paper explores two questions: first, whether the Constitution truly empowers the federal government to intervene in criminal law matters that involve only Tribal citizens and occur entirely on Tribal land; and second, whether such involvement in Lezmond Mitchell's case, as well as more broadly, is consistent with the United States' obligations under international law, namely the self-determination and cultural rights of Tribal Nations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Charter.

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