In a heinous case on the Navajo Nation, an 11-year-old girl was lured into a van, sexually assaulted and killed. The tribe did not seek to put to death the man who recently admitted to killing her.
For decades, Native American tribes have been able to tell federal prosecutors if they wanted a death sentence considered for certain crimes on their lands. Almost all of them rejected this option.
Tribes and legal experts say the ruling dates back to culture and tradition, the past treatment of American Indians and the fairness of the justice system.
“Most Indian tribes have been mistreated by the United States under past federal policies, and there may be historical trauma in cases associated with the execution of native people,” said Robert Anderson, professor of law at the University of Washington and member of the Bois Forte Band. from the Chippewa tribe of Minnesota. “This allows the tribes to decide at least in these narrow circumstances when there should be a federal death penalty or not.”
In the Navajo case, Ashlynne Mike’s body was not found until the next day. His death in May 2016 renewed discussions on the death penalty there.
Ashlynne’s mother urged the tribe to opt for the death penalty, especially for crimes involving children. The tribe has long opposed the killing of people, saying the culture forbids taking a human life in revenge.
For years, Theda New Breast has seen the effects of domestic violence, drug addiction, and poverty on her Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The healer helps those who suffer from the associated trauma. But whatever the nature of the crime, the 61-year-old is firmly opposed to the death penalty.
“Our beliefs, which I was raised with, say that no one has the right to take a life except the Creator. Period,” New Breast said. “End of the story.”
Congress expanded the list of crimes punishable by the death penalty in the mid-1990s, allowing tribes to decide whether they wanted their citizens to face the death penalty. Legal experts say they know of only one tribe, the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, which opted.
Tribal leaders hoped the ruling would deter serious and violent crime on the east-central Oklahoma reservation, said Truman Carter, Sac and Fox member, lawyer and tribal prosecutor. “The tribal leaders have said yes over the years, and they left him alone,” he said.
No American Indian was ever executed from the Sac and Fox reservation.
Yet the ability of tribes to decide on the death penalty does not completely exempt Native Americans from federal death row. According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., 16 Native Americans have been executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. The executions concerned crimes committed outside tribal lands or in the handful of states where the federal government did not. has no jurisdiction. on major crimes on reserves.
This was the case earlier this year when a California jury imposed the death penalty on Cherie Rhoades. Former chief of the Cedarville Rancheria tribe was convicted of shooting four people and attempting to kill two more.
Modac County District Attorney Jordan Funk said he did not consult with the tribe and was not required to do so before deciding to pursue the death penalty. He said Rhoades expressed no remorse for the killings at a tribal meeting where officials were considering his expulsion from the tribe.
“If they’d told me they didn’t want us to execute it, I would have done it anyway,” Funk said.
Tribes also have no say in the death penalty when certain federal crimes such as carjacking or kidnapping resulting in the death or murder of a federal officer occur on reserve lands. These carry a death sentence no matter where they occur.
This is how Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo, became the only American Indian currently on federal death row. He was convicted in a 2001 case of the murder of another member of the Navajo tribe and his 9-year-old granddaughter who was driving to see a medicine man. Their decapitated and mutilated bodies were found in a shallow grave in the reserve. Mitchell stole the woman’s car and then robbed a trading post in Red Valley, Arizona.
The Navajo Nation government has opposed the death penalty on murder charges. He had no choice on the charge of carjacking resulting in death.
Tamera Begay, a Navajo woman, has studied the Mitchell case and agrees the tribe should avoid the death penalty. “There is so much federal jurisdiction, it’s worrying,” she said.
Laura Harris, executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity and a member of the Comanche Nation, said her tribe viewed banishment as much worse punishment than death because it prevented a person from being part of the community.
She said the tribes also remember how the death penalty was used against them. In December 1862, for example, 38 men from Dakota who were at war with settlers from Minnesota were hanged in the largest mass execution in US history. An annual horseback ride is held to commemorate the men, ending at the site of the hangings in what is now Reconciliation Park.
Today, the death penalty is more likely to be applied in the case of a white victim than a victim of color. Native Americans make up less than a quarter of 1% of victims in cases that result in executions, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. For whites it is 75%, for blacks 15% and almost 7% for Latinos.
“It’s no surprise that you see a mistrust of the legal process similar to the mistrust you see in the African American community,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “When you look at who is executed, you see that there is a class of favored victims and a class of disadvantaged accused.”
Melissa Tatum, a research professor at the University of Arizona at Tucson, said most tribes believe the criminal justice system in the Indian country is not working, “not enough for them to opt for the death penalty, and statistics show that out. “
Prosecution of the death penalty in a federal case is unlikely, said Kevin Washburn, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. A panel from the US Department of Justice is due to review the case.
Tribes also can’t decide on a case-by-case basis, Washburn said.
“You cannot have a murder that happens today and the Navajo Nation allow the death penalty tomorrow and apply it to the murder that happened today,” he said. .
Ashlynne’s family is considering a future change. The Navajo man who recently admitted to killing her, Tom Begaye Jr., cannot get the death penalty on his next conviction. He faces life in prison without the possibility of release under a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
After Ashlynne’s death, Navajo leaders met with medics and discussed for at least two hours the general position of the tribe on the death penalty and decided to maintain a position against it, the council chairman said. tribal LoRenzo Bates.
“Navajo people see life as precious, good or bad, so we don’t choose,” he said. “All life is precious.”
Pamela Foster, Ashlynne’s mother, collected signatures online to convince the tribe to change their mind.
“If the traditional teachings are squarely against taking human life, WHY are we allowing this to happen? Foster wrote in an article online.