TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The only Native American on federal death row is set to die Wednesday for the slayings of a 9-year-old and her grandmother nearly two decades ago, though many Navajos are hoping for last-minute intervention by President Donald Trump to halt the execution.
If Lezmond Mitchell is put to death on schedule at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, he'll be the fourth federal inmate executed this year. That means the federal government under the pro-death penalty president will have carried out more executions in 2020 than in the previous 56 years combined.
Mitchell, 38, and an accomplice were convicted of killing Tiffany Lee and 63-year-old Alyce Slim, who had offered them a lift in her pickup truck as they hitchhiked on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona in 2001. They stabbed Slim 33 times, slit Tiffany’s throat and stoned her to death. They later mutilated both bodies.
The Navajo government asked Trump to commute Mitchell’s sentence on grounds his execution would violate Navajo culture and sovereignty. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., denied an attempt by Mitchell's lawyers for a last-minute court intervention. There was no immediate word on whether they would appeal the ruling to the circuit court, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined late Tuesday to step in and halt the execution. The first three federal executions in 17 years went ahead in July after similar legal maneuvers failed.
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. If Mitchell’s execution goes ahead as planned, it would happen on the third night of the GOP convention.
“Today’s decision means we will never know for sure whether anti-Native American bias influenced the jury’s decision to sentence Lezmond Mitchell to death," his lawyers, Jonathan Aminoff and Celeste Bacchi, said in a statement, reacting to the Supreme Court's decision not to take up the case. "Mr. Mitchell’s life is in President Trump’s hands, and we hope the President will demonstrate his respect for tribal sovereignty and grant Mr. Mitchell the mercy of executive clemency.”
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 a lethal injection of pentobarbital. 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.
Tiffany Lee's father, Daniel Lee, has told The Associated Press, he believes in the principle of “an eye for an eye” and wants 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 is not allowed to contact victims' families under court order and didn't respond to Michael Slim's letter, Bacchi said.
“Lezmond is 100% committed to engaging in the peacemaking process if permitted/able to do so,” 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.