The only Native American on federal death row has asked the Supreme Court to put his death sentence on hold. In a filing submitted Tuesday, Lezmond Mitchell urged the justices to stay his execution, scheduled for Aug. 26, while they consider whether to take up his claim that he should be able to interview the jurors who convicted him about whether their deliberations were tainted by racial bias.
Mitchell, a Navajo man, was convicted of the 2001 carjacking and stabbing deaths of Alyce Slim and her nine-year-old granddaughter, who were also Navajos. After he used Slim’s pickup truck in an armed robbery on the Navajo reservation, Mitchell was arrested; he then directed Navajo police officers to the victims’ mutilated bodies.
Mitchell was tried in federal court in 2003 before a jury made up of 11 white people and one Native American. Prosecutors told the jury that, in the Old West, Mitchell “would have been taken out back” and “strung up.” He was sentenced to death, and his death sentence was upheld on appeal.
In 2018, Mitchell sought to reopen his post-conviction proceedings in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. In that case, the justices – by a vote of 5-3 – created an exception when there is evidence of racial bias to the general rules barring jurors from testifying about statements made during deliberations that might call a verdict into question. A federal trial court denied Mitchell’s motion to reopen the case, reasoning that Peña-Rodriguez does not give Mitchell the right to interview his jurors unless there is a reason to believe they were biased against him. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld that decision.
Mitchell went to the Supreme Court this week, asking the justices to weigh in on whether, in death penalty cases, district courts can prohibit inmates from interviewing jurors about racial bias during deliberations. He also asked them to block his execution while they consider his petition for review.
If the justices decline to intervene, Mitchell would be the fourth federal inmate executed this year after a hiatus of nearly 20 years. The battle over the federal government’s efforts to resume executions has been a hotly contested one, with inmates raising challenges specific to their cases as well as challenges to the new lethal-injection protocol that the Department of Justice devised to avoid problems obtaining the drugs that have historically been used to put inmates to death.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the vote count in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. The vote was 5-3, not 5-4.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.