By Jonah McKeown
Catholic News Agency
TERRE HAUTE, Indiana (CNA) — Catholics are speaking out on behalf of a Native American man on federal death row, who is set to be executed this month. The man’s tribe, the Navajo Nation, objects to the death sentence and has asked President Donald Trump to commute the sentence to life in prison.
Lezmond Mitchell, 38, and a co-defendant, both of whom are Navajo, killed a Navajo woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter on a Navajo reservation in 2001, NPR reports. Mitchell is scheduled to die in Terre Haute, Indiana on Aug. 26.
Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico is leading a virtual prayer vigil on the afternoon of Aug. 26 ahead of Mitchell’s scheduled execution.
The idea of the prayer vigil, Bishop Wall told CNA, is to pray for Mitchell’s conversion, for healing for the victims’ family, and for conversion of the hearts of the executioners.
Mitchell is currently the only Native American on federal death row. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his appeal earlier this year.
Mitchell’s attorneys argue that no Native American can be subjected to the death penalty for a crime committed against a fellow Native American on Native American land without the tribe’s consent. The Navajo Nation is a sovereign entity that extends into three states — Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Most tribal leaders object to the death penalty, and both the Navajo Nation and Mitchell’s victims’ family have objected to Mitchell’s execution.
Federal prosecutors sought the death penalty for Mitchell for the lesser charge of carjacking, which is a federal offense. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has strongly criticized the federal government’s decision, saying that in addition to violating Navajo beliefs, Mitchell’s execution would undermine tribal sovereignty.
Bishop Wall said the leaders of the Navajo largely agree with the Church on the sacredness of human life, from conception to natural death.
“God is the author and giver of all human life, and we’re called to be good stewards of that life,” the bishop told CNA.
As the country moves forward, advances in the prison system allow the state to keep people safe from criminals without the use of the death penalty, which also gives those offenders an opportunity to genuinely repent, Bishop Wall said.
“It provides an opportunity for true contrition, true conversion of heart and that opportunity to embrace Christ and the Gospel. And whenever we do something like this, when we take a life, what we also do is we don’t provide that person the opportunity to repent. And everyone has to be given that opportunity.”
Gallup lies just outside the reservation but is nevertheless a vital hub for many of the reservation’s residents. The Navajo Nation has only a handful of grocery stores in its entire area, which is larger than West Virginia, so many Navajo people travel as many as three hours to get supplies in Gallup.
The Diocese of Gallup was founded in order to minister to and among the Native American people, Bishop Wall said, which brings with it many challenges. Gallup is one of the poorest dioceses in the U.S.
Bishop Wall said the poverty and lack of resources in the area make the diocese’s work even more vital. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the economic and health disparities in the Navajo Nation, as infection rates climb.
“So you don’t have a lot of resources, and I think at times you don’t draw a lot of attention to some of the things that are going on, as much as if it were a big city like Los Angeles or Phoenix or Chicago,” he said.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
The federal government resumed executions in July 2020, the first federal executions since 2003. The last scheduled execution this year is set for Aug. 28.
Several U.S. bishops, along with clergy and religious brothers and sisters from around the country, joined more than 1,000 faith leaders in calling for a stop to the scheduled executions.
The prison where the executions will take place fall within the archdiocese of Indianapolis. Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis opposed the executions on June 18, noting his jurisdiction with regard to the location of Terre Haute federal prison and stating that “the supreme law of the Church, the salvation of souls, demands that I speak out on this very grave matter at hand.”
“Since the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, it has been the Catholic position that today’s prison system is quite adequate to protect society from inmates escaping or being unlawfully set free,” he said.
While the crimes of the federal inmates cannot be ignored, Archbishop Thompson said, “humanity cannot allow the violent act of an individual to cause other members of humanity to react in violence.”