By Michael Tarm and Felicia Fonseca
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — 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, 38, lay flat on his back, his glasses still on and a medical mask across his face as the lethal drug flowed to IVs in his hands and forearms. His chest heaved and his thumb tapped the gurney, as his breathing appeared more labored and his stomach area began to throb. About 10 minutes later, Mitchell no longer appeared to move and his partially tattooed hands turned pale.
An official with a stethoscope checked for a pulse and listened to Mitchell's heart before he was declared dead at 6:29 p.m. EDT.
Mitchell 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.
A bid by tribal leaders 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.
“Today, the federal government added another chapter to its long history of injustices against Native American people," his lawyers, Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi, said in a statement. "Over the steadfast objection of the Navajo Nation, and despite urgent pleas for clemency from Navajo leaders and many other Native American tribes, organizations and citizens, the Trump administration executed Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo man, for a crime against other Navajo people committed on Navajo land."
They called the execution a "gross insult" to the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation.
"Mr. Mitchell’s execution came after the Supreme Court refused to allow him to interview his jurors – 11 white people and a single Navajo – about whether racial bias influenced their decision," the attorneys said.
The Federal Death Penalty Act allows tribes to decide whether to subject their citizens to capital punishment for a set of major crimes involving Native Americans on Native land. Nearly all, including the Navajo Nation, have said no. The Justice Department charged Mitchell with carjacking resulting in death, which fell outside that provision of the law.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez offered prayers Wednesday to both the victims' and Mitchell's family.
He blasted the federal government for ignoring the tribe's decision not to accept the death penalty.
“We don’t expect federal officials to understand our strongly held traditions of clan relationship, keeping harmony in our communities, and holding life sacred,” he said in a statement. “What we do expect, no, what we demand, is respect for our People, for our Tribal Nation, and we will not be pushed aside any longer.”
Carl Slater was among Navajo leaders hopeful Mitchell’s sentence would be reduced to life in prison. Navajo culture teaches that all life is sacred.
“I’m incredibly fearful for all the relationships between Indian Country and the U.S. government, that this will set the precedent that any voice our governments give to our people and our collective citizens will be disregarded, ignored," Slater said after Mitchell died. “And, ultimately, the federal government will do whatever it pleases to Indian peoples.”
(Related article: Tribes, NCAI urge President Trump to halt execution)
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.
Auska Mitchell, Mitchell’s uncle on his maternal side, said he had been praying and burning cedar earlier Wednesday and was heartbroken to hear his nephew died.
“I hope he gets the peace in death that he didn’t get in life,” he said. “It can’t be peaceful being on death row and probably solitary all the time. That’s no life to live.”
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.
Mark Charles, the only Native candidate for U.S. president, weighed in on Mitchell's execution on Twitter.
“I lament that breaking treaties with #Native nations and disregarding tribal sovereignty is a bipartisan value that is upheld and protected by the United States Supreme Court. #LezmondMitchell,” the independent candidate and Diné citizen wrote.
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.
Indian Country Today contributed to this report.