Despite rise of violent crime in Navajo Nation, opinions on death penalty mixed
TUBA CITY, Ariz. - Nearly a decade ago, when the federal government expanded the death penalty to potentially include reservation residents, leaders of the Navajo Nation had been among the sharpest critics of that decision.
Cultural taboos just wouldn't permit the taking of a life no matter the circumstance, the tribe's traditionalists said. They also found it repulsive that decisions of life and death would be made by non-Indians in federal courts.
But that was before a tidal wave of high-profile violent crime engulfed the nation's largest Indian reservation.
Federal prosecutors say that the Navajo Nation has six times the national average for violent crime and that 40 percent of all those crimes committed nationally in Indian country happen on Arizona's reservations north of Phoenix, primarily at Navajo. Sixty-three murders were committed on the Navajo Nation in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to the Department of Justice's most recent Indian Country Crime report.
Because of that, the tribe's public safety committee held a series of five public meetings last month in Shiprock and Crownpoint, N.M., and Fort Defiance, Chinle and Tuba City, Ariz., to test the public sentiment about whether the tribe should allow capital punishment to be imposed on its members by the feds for certain crimes.
The feelings were decidedly mixed; so much so that the committee will conduct four more hearings in November, said Harry Clark, a tribal council delegate from Chinle, Ariz. One of those hearings will be in Kayenta, Ariz., and the others are expected to be held on the eastern part of the reservation in New Mexico, Clark said.
All of the intense emotions are leaving the Navajo tribal council with a very tough decision when it is expected to vote on the matter, probably early next year. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. had indicated earlier this year that he favored the death penalty but reversed himself recently and said he favors life in prison without parole for the worst crimes on the reservation.
Only one other tribe, the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, has allowed the death penalty to be imposed upon its tribal members in federal court, according to U.S. Justice Department officials.
"This is going to be an extremely important decision on this issue and its future in Indian country," said Joseph Lodge, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Flagstaff, Ariz. "Navajo is playing the role of the 800-pound gorilla now."
When the Clinton Administration expanded application of the death penalty in 1994, Indian tribes were not given any control over the ejudication of such crimes as carjacking, kidnapping resulting in death or killing a federal office. Each of those federal crimes could carry the death penalty, regardless of the jurisdiction.
Navajo tribal member Lezmond Mitchell, 21, this year became the first Native American sentenced to death under those revised statutes. Mitchell was convicted of carjacking a pickup owned by Alyce Slim, then killing Slim and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee, before dismembering their bodies in 2001. The two had been en route from their home near Window Rock, Ariz., to see a medicine man in New Mexico.
Despite that horrific crime, Leo Begay, president of the Tuba City chapter of the Navajo Nation, said he remains against the death penalty.
"All of our traditional teachings and stories told to us do not authorize the death penalty. The holy people did not make that kind of an arrangement. Our teachings are that we rehabilitate and counsel these people who do those crimes. The creator is the only one who decides life and death," Begay said. "I also think that in these public hearings a lot more people have been against the death penalty than for it."
Clark, the Chinle council delegate who is a member of the public safety committee, also said he is strongly against the death penalty and shares Begay's observation that those attending the forums have been overwhelmingly against capital punishment.
"We had a girl from Chinle who was killed in a very horrible murder," Clark said. "I've noticed that her parents over the course of these hearings have gone from being for the death penalty to being very much against it."
A lot of that kind of change of heart is because of who would be carrying out the death sentence, said Hope MacDonald-Lonetree, who chairs the public safety subcommittee.
"Do our elected officials want another government to make the decision concerning the fate of our tribal members," MacDonald-Lonetree asked.
Cora Phillips told the Tuba City gathering that even Navajos don't want to make that decision.
"I'm not the one to judge that. I'm not the one to say that we impose the death penalty because that person killed," Phillips said.