Only Native American on federal death row executed
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The only Native American on federal death row was put to death Wednesday, despite objections from many Navajo leaders who had urged President Donald Trump to halt the execution on the grounds it would violate tribal culture and sovereignty.
With the execution of Lezmond Mitchell for the grisly slayings of a 9-year-old and her grandmother, the federal government under the pro-death penalty president has now carried out more executions in 2020 than it had in the previous 56 years combined.
Asked by a prison official if he had any last words for victims’ family members and other witnesses behind glass at the death chamber, Mitchell casually responded, “No, I’m good.”
Moments later, prison officials began the lethal injection of pentobarbital inside the small, pale-green death chamber at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Mitchell lay flat on his back, his glasses still on and a medical face mask across his face at the injection flowed from a backroom to IVs in hands and forearms. His chest heaved and his thumb tapped the gurney, as his stomach area began to throb. After 10 minutes, Mitchell no longer appeared to move and his partially tattooed hands turned pale.
About 15 minutes later, an official with a stethoscope walked into the death chamber, checked for a pulse on Mitchell’s neck and listened to his heart, He walked back out and a voice over the sound system declared him dead at 6:29 p.m. EDT.
Mitchell, who is now 38, and an accomplice were convicted of killing Tiffany Lee and 63-year-old Alyce Slim after the grandmother offered them a lift as they hitchhiked on the Navajo Nation in 2001. They stabbed Slim 33 times, slit Tiffany’s throat and stoned her to death. They later mutilated both bodies.
Tribal leaders’ bid to persuade Trump to commute Mitchell’s sentence to life in prison failed, as did last-minute appeals by his lawyers for a stay. The first three federal executions in 17 years went ahead in July after similar legal maneuvers failed. Keith Nelson, who was also convicted of killing a child, is slated to die Friday.
“Nearly 19 years after Lezmond Mitchell brutally ended the lives of two people, destroying the lives of many others, justice finally has been served,” Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement.
Critics accuse Trump of pushing to resume executions after a nearly 20-year hiatus in a quest to claim the mantle of law-and-order candidate. Mitchell’s execution occurred during the GOP’s convention week.
In a statement, Mitchell’s lawyers said the execution “added another chapter to its long history of injustices against Native American people.”
“Mr. Mitchell’s execution represents a gross insult to the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation, whose leaders had personally called on the President to commute his sentence to life without possibility of release,” his lawyers, Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi, said in a statement. “The very fact that he faced execution despite the tribe’s opposition to a death sentence for him reflected the government’s disdain for tribal sovereignty.”
Keith Nelson, who was also convicted of killing a child, is slated to die Friday at the Terre Haute prison, where all federal executions are carried out by lethal injection. Nelson’s lawyers say pentobarbital can cause severe pain and so should be deemed unconstitutional.
Death-penalty advocates say the Trump administration’s restart of executions is bringing justice — too long delayed — to victims and families. There are currently 58 men and one woman on federal death row, many of whose executions have been pending for over 20 years.
Donel Lee, Tiffany Lee’s, older brother, thanked Trump for not stopping the execution and criticized the opposition by the Navajo Nation president.
“He will have to answer to God why he wanted this murderer to live,” Donel Lee said. “But now I’m at peace with it and justice is served. Now he (Mitchell) has to answer to God, and I hope my little sister was standing there with God while he judged him.”
Tiffany Lee’s father, Daniel Lee, has told The Associated Press, he believes in the principle of “an eye for an eye” and wanted Mitchell to die for the slayings. He also said Navajo leaders don’t speak for him: “I speak for myself and for my daughter.”
Family and friends described Slim, a school bus driver who was approaching retirement, as gracious, spiritual and well-liked by students on her route.
Michael Slim, the grandson and cousin of the victims, has sat on both sides of the courtroom during Mitchell’s court cases. An outlier in his family, he supported putting Mitchell to death but gradually changed his mind over the years and said that should be left up to God.
“We are all guilty of sin, so it’s not fair for us to condemn someone,” he said. “It’s not my job to say ‘we should kill him.’”
Slim wrote to Mitchell last year saying he wanted to be his friend and advocate for him to be released from death row. As the execution neared, Slim said he’s in constant prayer.
“I keep thinking good thoughts about him,” he said Tuesday.
But lawyers recently wrote a letter on behalf of other relatives — including Tiffany’s mom and Alyce Slim’s daughter, Marlene — saying they want the sentence carried out. They argued Mitchell showed no “respect for ... Navajo cultural teachings that stress the sanctity of life.”
Marlene Slim favored life in prison at the time of sentencing.
Mitchell has long maintained that his accomplice, Johnny Orsinger, took the lead in the killings. Orsinger was a juvenile then and couldn’t be sentenced to death. He’s serving a life sentence in Atlanta.
Mitchell, through his attorneys, said he wanted to participate in a traditional way of resolving disputes known as peacemaking that’s meant to restore harmony and balance. But he was not allowed to contact victims’ families under court order and didn’t respond to Michael Slim’s letter, Bacchi said.
Among several anti-death penalty protesters at an intersection across the street from the prison was Sister Barbara Battista, who was wearing face mask with block letters on the front that read, “Abolish the death penalty.”
“It’s another sad day for America,” said Battista, who is serving a spiritual adviser to Nelson as he awaits execution.
She said Nelson and Mitchell were friends, having been on death row together for nearly two decades. She spoke to Nelson in recent days and he said he, Mitchell and other death row inmates with execution dates didn’t hold out much hope their lives would be spared.
“They are all pretty resigned,” she said.
Prior to this year, the federal government had carried out just three executions since 1963, all of them between 2001 and 2003, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was among them.
The first of the resumed executions was of former white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14. Two others, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken, were executed later the same week. The victims of all three also included children.
The executions of Christopher Andre Vialva and William Emmett LeCroy are scheduled for late September.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.