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Navajos Debate Duty and the Death Penalty

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz.— Hozhooji naat'aanii, or "talking things out in a good way," has been the traditional Navajo method of resolving disputes and addressing crimes.
    The process— which involves convening the relatives of the offender as well as the victims, listening to everyone and agreeing on restitution— has worked well for centuries for livestock thefts, domestic disputes, even some criminal assaults.
    But a different caliber of crime— gruesome murders with multiple victims— has come to the Navajo reservation in the recent past.
    A father guns down his four daughters. A mother opens fire on her three children. A man straps on an ammo belt and opens fire on his family hogan, killing four relatives.
    Escalating violent crime has brought forth discussions of escalating punishment. The nation's largest Indian tribe is now considering taking a monumental step away from Hozhooji naat'aanii and allowing the death penalty for certain crimes prosecuted by the federal government.
    A provision in the 1994 law that expanded the federal death penalty gave Indian tribes the option of allowing the death penalty for first-degree murders committed within their reservation boundaries as well as the option of saying no.
    Because most serious crimes on Indian reservations are prosecuted in federal courts, a tribe's decision could affect how a large number of the murders that occur inside its boundaries are punished. The death penalty would be an option for all premeditated murders and murders that occur in the commission of another felony, such as robbery or kidnapping.
    Only the Sac and Fox Nation, a tribe of a few hundred members in Oklahoma, has opted in, and until last week no American Indian defendant was among the 24 prisoners on federal death row.
    The debate among Navajos has taken the form of public hearings across the 25,000-square-mile reservation over the past two weeks.
    Members of the Navajo Nation Council's Public Safety Committee have traveled across the reservation and listened for hours to a discussion that mirrors the nationwide debate over capital punishment— with two local twists: Traditional teachings are squarely against the taking of human life, and Navajos are reluctant to give local control of any issue to the federal government and non-Navajos.
Advice and counsel
    "We are talking about maybe handing them over to the bilagaana (white people) to be killed, executed, terminated permanently," Fort Defiance resident Carol Perry testified before the committee's meeting in Fort Defiance, a large community just over the New Mexico border that has suffered from gang violence.
    "Precious leaders," she said, "be careful, do not solve a dysfunctional problem with a dysfunctional solution. Respect life as sacred, and slowly, with the Creator's help, we will find the right solutions for our people."
    Wallace Dale, whose 16-year-old daughter, Deirdre, was picked up while she was walking in Gallup, beaten, strangled and dumped by the side of a reservation road, said the four-year and 12-year sentences Deirdre's killers received were not enough.
    "What kind of people are out there that would do this to our loved ones?" Dale asked. "Think about your grandmas and your grandpas and the kind of fear they're living in."
    Deirdre's mother, Delores, asked for grief counseling for the increasing number of families touched by violent crimes.
    "My daughter will not come back if we put to death her murderers," she said.
    Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said he favors life in prison without parole, not capital punishment. But he said it is up to the people to decide the issue.
    Others have weighed in.
    The federal public defenders from Arizona and Utah, the states where most Navajo crimes are prosecuted, have testified against opting in.
    And the Navajo Nation Medicine Men's Association has also come out against opting in.
    "We do the healing, not destroying the person," said Thomas Morris, the association's president. "It's not right to take a life for another life. As medicine people, we believe that we cannot destroy life."
'Coming from pain'
    Indian tribes do not have a say regarding certain crimes, including carjacking or kidnapping resulting in death or killing a federal officer— crimes that carry a possible death penalty regardless of where they occur.
    That is why in the midst of the Navajo Nation's debate, a member of the tribe was the first Native American to be sentenced to death in the federal system.
    Lezmond Mitchell, 22, was found guilty in federal court in Phoenix of carjacking in a 2001 crime that shocked reservation residents for its brutality as well as for its victims— a grandmother and a 9-year-old girl. He was sentenced to death last month.
    Alyce Slim, 65, took her granddaughter, Tiffany Lee, with her when she went from their home in Fort Defiance to meet with some traditional healers in New Mexico for treatment of a leg ailment. On her way home, she picked up two hitchhikers. When she stopped to let them out, she was stabbed 33 times and driven to the mountains. Lee's throat was slit and her head pounded with rocks.
    The men used Slim's pickup in a robbery of a trading post and returned to the mountains to cover their tracks. They cut off Slim's and Lee's heads and hands and buried them, then burned their bodies.
    Because one of the charges was carjacking resulting in death, the Navajo Nation would have had no say in whether Mitchell faced life or death. But his crimes were enough to open discussions about the nation's position on the issue.
    "If there ever was a time to capitalize on people's emotions, this is it," said Kathleen Bowman, who heads the Navajo Nation's Public Defender's Office.
    Bowman, whose grandfather, nephew and cousin were killed, has suggested that the tribe needs to put its resources into alcohol treatment and counseling to help rebuild families to prevent crimes.
    "It's anathema to me for us to decide to kill people," she said. "I think people are coming from pain."
    Bowman traces the debate back several years to the beginning of gang violence and multiple murders on the reservation.
    In 1994 there were 16 homicides on the Navajo reservation. In 1995, there were 32. And, in 1996, a record 67 homicides occurred.
    The numbers have stabilized since then, but concerns about violence linger.
Emphasizing harmony
    On a summer night in 1996, 33-year-old Norman Yazzie sat in his bedroom writing a 10-page letter to his estranged wife, Cecelia.
    He told her that he was going to punish her for moving out by killing the couple's five children. Then he took a rifle, walked into the living room where the children were lying on the floor watching a movie and started shooting.
    He killed his four daughters, ages 5, 9, 13 and 15, and wounded his son.
    It was multiple slayings with clear premeditation and a case that was an obvious candidate for the death penalty.
    But because of the Navajos' opt-out decision, capital punishment was never considered in one of the worst multiple slayings to occur on the reservation.
    Instead, the president of the Navajo Nation went to Yazzie's home two days later and shared a meal with Yazzie's relatives.
    "Just because he did this doesn't mean we exclude him," then-President Albert Hale said. "He has a mother and a father who love him."
    Hale's response was true to the traditional way of dealing with one Navajo's transgression against another.
    The most common penalties in Navajo courts, which prosecute less serious crimes that occur on the reservation, are jail time and probation. But the courts still contain a "peacemaking" component, a reflection of the Hozhooji naat'aanii practice of negotiating between crime perpetrators and their victims to restore balance to the community.
    When the question of whether the Navajo Nation would sign on for the death penalty has come up in the past, even the tribe's attorneys general have weighed in in favor of a more healing approach.
    "The capital punishment sentence removes any possibility of restoring the harmony in a society," then- Navajo Nation Attorney General Levon Henry wrote to federal prosecutors in Arizona last year.
    "As part of Navajo cultural and religious values, we do not support the concept of capital punishment," Henry said. "Navajos hold life sacred. Our culture and religion teach us to value life and instruct against the taking of human life for vengeance."
    The current Navajo Nation attorney general, Louis Denetsosie, said he will not complicate the debate with his opinion.
    "It's a hot topic," Denetsosie conceded. But he said it is for the people, through their representatives, to decide.