TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — The road to a federal execution is fraught with myriad technically and emotionally complicated moving parts. Two more are expected to occur this week at Terre Haute’s Federal Correctional Complex, if the usual array of appeals do not delay them.
Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo and the only Native American man on federal death row, is scheduled to be put to death Tuesday at 6 p.m. Keith Dwayne Nelson will follow, slated for execution Friday at 4 p.m.
These follow three executions in Terre Haute in July, the first federal executions since 2003. Two were delayed by last-second appeals — the final verdict on the first execution was not reached until 2 a.m. the day after it had been scheduled, forcing those attending to return to the correctional complex at 4 a.m.
The Justice Department has been questioned for holding the executions in the middle of the worsening coronavirus pandemic, prompting lawsuits over fears those who would travel to the prison could become infected. The decision to resume executions after nearly two decades was also criticized as a political move in an election year, forcing an issue that is not high on the list of American priorities considering the pandemic and the 11% unemployment rate.
Mitchell’s execution is controversial because under federal law, Native American tribes can decide whether they want their citizens subjected to the death penalty for a set of crimes involving Natives on tribal land and the Navajo Nation has opted out. Mitchell, with an accomplice, stabbed a 63-year-old grandmother 33 times and slit the throat and crushed the skull of her nine-year-old granddaughter. Since he committed the murders to steal the grandmother’s truck, he was convicted of carjacking resulting in death, a crime that carries the possibility of capital punishment regardless of where it happens. That decision is part of the appeal for clemency.
Nelson kidnapped a 10-year-old girl rollerblading in Kansas City, and took her to Missouri where he raped her and strangled her to death with a wire. He pleaded guilty, but his appeal is based on the fact that his original attorney did not tell the jury that he was brain-damaged as a newborn and a victim of physical and sexual abuse as a child, factors that might have mitigated the jury’s decision to sentence him to death.
Given the controversies of the cases and the death penalty in general, protests of executions are inevitable.
Sgt. Matt Ames, Public Information Officer for the Indiana State Police says, “Our number one priority is providing a safe environment for the people who are expressing their First-Amendment rights, and also allowing the citizens who live near the Bureau of Prisons, making sure they have a safe environment.”
Last month, authorities blocked access to the prison; this time, they won’t. “There’s been an agreement between the state of Indiana and the ACLU that will allow the roadways to be open at this time,” Ames says, adding that it’s up to protesters to decide where they will protest. “What we’re going to do is just have extra roving patrols providing the extra protection for everyone who’s participating in their First-Amendment rights and also for the citizens who live nearby.”
And authorities have made plans in the case of delays caused by appeals, with officers ready to work in shifts depending on when the executions and the protests will occur. “We’re prepared either way, whether it’s going to go down at the time scheduled or whether there’s judicial delays that continue to go on,” Ames said. “We will have officers there the entire time.
“Protesters last time were very good,” he continued. “They expressed their opinions through signs and also verbally. They were not hindering traffic at all. They were exactly how a protest should go – very peaceful, and allowing their First-Amendment right to be seen.”
Among the groups protesting will be the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods. “We plan to gather to stand in protest and vigil to let folks know, to let the government know, to let the citizens of Terre Haute know that we do not agree with killing someone because they killed someone,” said Sister Barbara Battista, the Justice Promoter for the Sisters of Providence.
The Sisters of Providence will gather 90 minutes before each execution is scheduled across the street from the gates of the Penitentiary, at State Road 63 and Springhill Drive. Virtual prayer vigils are scheduled for both days at 2 p.m., where participants think of the victims’ family members as well as those being executed and their families.
Unlike the authorities, protesters couldn’t always persist through the delays of July’s executions. “You cannot be outside all day in the Indiana summer,” Sister Barbara said. “So we did what we could. We stood for as long as we could, we took a break, had a meal to get inside air conditioning.” Eventually, they had to go home, though some returned early the next morning of the first execution.
Though states have increasingly begun banning the death penalty and fewer prisoners being executed in recent years, the fact that the federal government has opted to return to the procedure has created interest anew in the abolition movement. “For the Feds to get involved, it’s really unfortunately a time for us to garner even more attention, more of a following, more momentum,” Sister Barbara said.
But that doesn’t mean the movement is all about righteousness; it’s equally wrenching.
“Does it matter what (those being executed) did? Of course it does,” Sister Barbara said. “We stand to say, we do not have the authority to pass judgement on whether that means that person should live or die. … It’s difficult to read those stories, and we continue to stand knowing they deserve the dignity of any human being. It’s never OK to execute someone.”
Two additional executions are scheduled for September — William Emmett LeCroy on the 22nd and Christopher Andre Vialva on the 24th.