Sister Barbara Battista entered the death chamber and walked toward Keith Nelson as he lay strapped down to the gurney. Wearing an N95 mask and a light blue T-shirt, she carried anointing oil, a book of psalms, and tucked inside it, a handbill labeled Execution Prayer Service. The room was small and sterile, lined with pale green tile. A warden stood a few feet away, along with a U.S. Marshal and another man in a suit — the executioner. The man gestured toward a piece of blue tape on the floor, marking the spot where she was to stand. He then gave her permission to speak.
“Hi Keith, I’m here,” Battista remembers saying. Nelson briefly lifted his head. He wore a blue surgical mask. His large, pale arms were stretched outward, a sheet covering his body up to his neck. Battista knew he did not want a prayer. “I just said I’m here with you, I’m here for you.”
Across from the prison, next to the Dollar General on State Road 63, Battista’s fellow Sisters of Providence from St. Mary of the Woods Catholic Church stood alongside anti-death penalty demonstrators. At 4 p.m., the scheduled time of execution, activists took turns tolling a large bell, then stood in silent prayer. Battista could not hear the bell. But she told Nelson the protesters were out there.
As his minister of record, Battista had been briefed on what to expect. But once inside the death chamber, she found a number of things unnerving. “Even though I was told I couldn’t touch him, it was difficult to be that close and not have any physical contact,” she said. Even more disturbing was seeing the tubes that would deliver the lethal dose of pentobarbital through an IV in Nelson’s arm. They snaked from the gurney toward the back of the execution chamber, where they disappeared through the wall.
Battista had been inside the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, twice before. The first time was in 1996, the year after the death chamber was completed. As a physician’s assistant, she had considered taking a job at the prison. But in a meeting with the medical director, she had been told she would have to be trained in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons firearms protocol, to be used in the event of a disturbance. “And I’m like, so you want me to take care of these guys. But then if an incident happens, you’re going to position me at some strategic location with a gun in my hand that I have to point towards them?” She knew she could never take the job.
The same perverse contradiction loomed over the lethal injection, which used healing drugs in order to kill. To Battista, there was something particularly grotesque in the way the IV tubes vanished through the wall, concealing the person — or people — who would take Nelson’s life. “It was like they were saying, ‘We’re gonna do this, but nobody gets to see it, not even the person being executed.’ There’s no movement, there’s no sound, there’s no anything. And to me, that just seems deceitful.”
After Battista finished speaking to Nelson, three sets of shades opened simultaneously. Looking into the execution chamber were several witnesses — six reporters in one room, Nelson’s lawyers in another room, and the family of his victim, 10-year-old Pamela Butler, in a third. The executioner asked if Nelson had any last words but received no response.
It was not clear exactly when the pentobarbital began to flow. News reports would later say that it took nine minutes for Nelson to die. “I noticed Nelson’s stomach quickly moving up and down, which, to me, seemed like nervousness,” one media witness wrote. “Within minutes, his breaths became more shallow, slower and eventually just pulsations in his stomach … then, nothing at all. From what I could see, Nelson kept his gaze up to the ceiling for the procedure. His fingernails went from a hint of pink to blue by the end.”
In the meantime, Battista prayed. After a man with a stethoscope entered to confirm that Nelson was gone, the executioner announced the time of death: 4:32 p.m. Only then was Battista allowed to approach his body. “I anointed his forehead, his hand. … I asked them to pull the sheet down so I could anoint his chest near his heart. And they did that.”
Afterward, Battista was taken back to her car, which was parked at the Dollar General. She took off her mask and addressed the crowd. Reflecting on the experience the next morning, she spoke slowly and deliberately, articulating the surreal reality of what had happened. “We were standing there — four human beings, standing there. … And this man was just given a lethal dose of medication against his will. … And we’re just watching him die.”
Battista and I met on the day after the execution, just after 8 a.m. In her yard drinking coffee, she wore a sundress and sandals. It was Saturday, August 29; the Republican National Convention had ended the night before. I had picked up the weekend edition of the local Tribune-Star, which tracked the latest Covid-19 numbers in Vigo County alongside its front-page headline: “U.S. executes fifth inmate in past month.”
The article quoted Battista as well as veteran abolitionist Abe Bonowitz, who had helped organize the protests under the banner of the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance. He reiterated what he had been saying for months: The executions had been set with Donald Trump’s reelection in mind. With two more scheduled for late September — and new dates rumored to be on their way — Trump had already carried out more federal executions in 2020 than his predecessors had in the previous 57 years combined. “[Franklin D.] Roosevelt had 17,” Bonowitz said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to exceed that, because for Trump, it is always about being the most, the biggest, and the best.”
Yet there had been no mention of the executions during Trump’s speech at the White House the night before. In fact, despite a week replete with fearmongering calls for “law and order,” there were no hints throughout the convention that an execution spree was underway — one unprecedented in modern death penalty history.
There was a certain logic to keeping the issue below the radar. For all the dystopian rhetoric of violent crime and burning cities, Americans are increasingly turning away from capital punishment. In late June, just weeks before the first round of executions, a Gallup poll found that a “record-low 54 percent of Americans consider the death penalty to be morally acceptable, marking a six-percentage-point decrease since last year.” Trump’s executions ran against longtime trends showing both executions and new death sentences on a precipitous decline.
Local news outlets had covered the executions extensively — the reporter for Tribune Star had witnessed all five — but the issue was not necessarily at the forefront of people’s mind in Terre Haute. Outside the Dollar General during Nelson’s execution, shoppers expressed a mix of irritation and indifference to my questions. One man told me he was sick of the protests and just wanted to go to work. Another, wearing a Trump/Pence face mask, said he figured the condemned deserved to die, but he had not been paying too much attention. But one woman said she was against the death penalty; it was up to God to decide people’s fate.
In the rest of the country, national attention had once again turned to a different kind of state violence, with protests breaking out over the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. On the eve of the week’s first execution, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse had shot two protesters dead. The executions faded into the background.
Still, sitting seven miles away from the federal killing ground on that Saturday morning, the disconnect between what had happened that week in Terre Haute and the RNC felt a little bizarre. Lawyers for the Trump administration had fought hard to push through the executions despite the coronavirus pandemic, ignoring public health warnings and beating back lawsuits by victims’ families and spiritual advisers who argued that the plans put their health at risk. The first two men to die — Daniel Lee and Wesley Purkey — had been killed following all-night legal ordeals, with the U.S. Supreme Court waving the executions forward in the dead of night. It was hard to imagine that Trump would not take vocal credit at some point for such hard-won triumphs in the name of law and order.
In any event, the executions were unquestionably in line with Trump’s larger agenda. “To me, it’s all of a piece,” Battista said. “It’s the disregard for our common humanity.” In 2019, she was one of 70 Catholic protesters arrested in Washington, D.C., during an act of civil disobedience to protest the administration’s treatment of children in immigration detention. On her blue Nissan Versa, a faded bumper sticker reads “RACISM: OUR NATIONAL DISEASE.”
It was her activism that had led her to the death chamber the day before. The third man executed by the Trump administration, Dustin Honken, who died July 17, had told his own longtime spiritual adviser that Nelson had seen Battista on the news. He passed along word that Nelson hoped she might accompany him when it was his turn to die. “I could not say no,” she said.
Like all of the men executed in the federal death chamber this summer, Nelson had been convicted of a horrific crime: the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl. There was an outpouring of grief in her hometown of Kansas City, Kansas, which continues to commemorate her death. Nelson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to die in 2001. His appellate lawyers argued that his sentencing trial was riddled with errors by his attorneys, who failed to present mitigating evidence that might have prompted jurors to spare his life. Case records documented significant revelations at a post-conviction hearing, which showed that Nelson had “brain damage, severe mental illness, and impaired psychological, emotional, and neurobiological development from chronic exposure to trauma, including being raped as a child.”
That hearing also revealed profound differences between Nelson and his twin brother, Kenneth, who grew up to work as a satellite communications maintenance operator in the U.S. Army. The two were born premature to a teenage mother who was brutally abused during her pregnancy. According to one witness, a pediatrician specializing in neonatal-perinatal medicine, their father “stomped on her abdomen” just days before she gave birth. Hospital records showed that Keith Nelson stopped breathing multiple times after birth; in contrast to Kenneth, who went home without complications, he was hospitalized for severe respiratory distress, which had serious implications for his brain development. But federal prosecutors dismissed this testimony, arguing that Nelson’s twin brother had grown up in the same fraught environment and had turned out just fine.
By the time Battista met Nelson in person on August 18, he seemed resigned to his fate. He spoke about his mother, who was in poor health but had come to see him one last time. He talked about the harrowing execution of Daniel Lee, who was strapped down to the gurney for four hours waiting to die. And he talked about the politics surrounding the executions. Battista recalled being struck by one thing he said: “You know, pretty soon they’re gonna run out of us white dudes.”
Cynically Curated Killings
From the moment Attorney General William Barr first announced the federal execution dates, it was clear that the case had been carefully chosen. Most of the condemned were white men, which struck many people as no accident. One Indiana death penalty lawyer described the list of the condemned as “curated in a really cynical way,” to conceal the federal system’s stark racial disparities. If executions moved forward, she said at the time, eventually “it’s going to be black person after black person after black person.”
Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American man on federal death row, was among the first men originally scheduled to die. But his execution date was paused a few months later. In June, however, a new date was set: August 26, two days before Keith Nelson.
Like Nelson, Mitchell’s crimes were shocking. With a teenage co-defendant, he was convicted of brutally murdering a 63-year-old woman named Alyce Slim and her 9-year-old grandchild Tiffany Lee, then beheading and dismembering their bodies. Both the victims and their killers were Navajo — and the murders were committed on Navajo land.
Mitchell denied carrying out the murders. Unlike his co-defendant, he had no history of violence. But more controversial were the maneuvers undertaken by the federal government to win a death sentence in the case. Not only did the Department of Justice exploit a legal loophole to seek the death penalty — in violation of the express wishes of the victims’ family and the Navajo Nation — his trial was moved to Phoenix, where Mitchell was tried before 11 white jurors and one Navajo juror. In a petition for a writ of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court, Mitchell’s lawyers argued that, due to the rules governing federal jurisdictions, they had been denied a chance to investigate the role racial bias may have played in their client’s death sentence. But the petition was denied.
On August 25, the eve of Mitchell’s execution, attorney Michael O’Connor, who handled his direct appeal, wrote a statement that would be released after his client’s death. “I had not intended to write or say anything about Lezmond’s execution for selfish reasons,” he wrote. “Loyalty and love, however, compel me to raise my voice in protest.” In the two decades he spent representing people in death penalty cases, he said, no case had revealed the racism of the system more clearly than Mitchell’s.
“In Lezmond’s case, more than 400 Native Americans (out of a total of approximately 2000 prospective jurors) were summoned for possible service on his trial,” O’Connor went on. “More than 99% of those Native Americans summoned were excused or disqualified as unfit for jury service. No other racial group was dismissed at even half that rate. In a Navajo on Navajo crime committed on the Navajo reservation, jurors were excluded if they spoke only Navajo. Before being dismissed for ‘cause,’ Navajo jurors were badgered by the judge with questions such as ‘You’re Navajo and he’s Navajo. Could you possibly be fair?’”
That same day, I spoke to the juror who served as the foreperson in Mitchell’s trial, Kerrie Snyder. She had been startled to hear from me. Although she thought about the case from time to time, she had no idea he had been set for execution. “Honestly,” she said, “if somebody had walked up to me and said ‘Lezmond Mitchell,’ I’d have had no clue what they were talking about.”
What she did remember was being deeply horrified by the crime. “Brutal,” she said. “Brutal, brutal.” She remembered driving home to Clarkdale, about an hour and a half north of Phoenix; “I would just be crying in my car.” She also remembered being awed by the size of the jury pool and the lengthy process during which prospective jurors were narrowed down and selected. When it came to deliberations, it was not a hard call. The evidence against Mitchell was overwhelming, she said — and defense attorneys didn’t present much evidence at all.
Snyder and her fellow jurors took their task very seriously. “We were present. … We were focused.” And, she added, “it was people from all over … from around the state. From all walks of life, from all kinds of backgrounds. And I thought, Wow, this is really, you know, a jury of your peers.” She remembers thinking the system worked.
I told her about Mitchell’s challenge before the Supreme Court, which argued that the opposite was true, and which sought to investigate possible racial bias. “Can I tell you what the race or nationality was of everybody in that room? Absolutely not right now,” she replied. “I don’t recall any black people being on that jury, for instance. … I couldn’t tell you if there were Hispanics in that room or not. I don’t believe there were any Native Americans in that room — I’m pretty sure that would have stuck with me, but again, I wouldn’t swear to that.”
Still, she took no satisfaction in the looming execution. “You don’t want to be involved in anybody’s death, whether legally or violently, you know. It’s kind of a weird thing. This will hang with me for a few days.”
Risk of Torturous Death
Mitchell’s execution took place right on schedule. “Two government officials stood nearby as execution procedures began at 6:03 p.m.,” according to the Indianapolis Star. “They read a list of Mitchell’s convicted charges before administering a lethal injection.” Mitchell did not have a spiritual adviser accompanying or any witnesses on his behalf. Asked if he had any last words, he said, “No, I’m good.”
Adam Pinsker, a reporter with Indiana Public Radio, was one of two journalists who had witnessed all four executions to date. Speaking to Bonowitz and the activists next to the Dollar Store after Mitchell’s execution, he said that the first execution had been hard to shake. “It runs through your mind, like when you’re at the grocery store, when you’re watching TV,” he said. But after seeing the additional executions, he felt himself getting more desensitized, which unnerved him. Nelson’s execution two days later would be the last one he planned to witness.
Pinsker said Mitchell’s execution had taken longer than the others. About seven minutes in, he estimated, he noticed “very labored breathing. … I didn’t really notice that in the last three of them.” Even under the sheet, it was possible to see his abdomen protracting in and out, he said. But there was no way to see Mitchell’s facial expressions. It was covered with a mask.
Although it was impossible to tell precisely what was happening beneath the surface, lawyers had long challenged the execution protocols, based on the risk that it would lead to a tortuous death. A preliminary autopsy report for Wesley Purkey, executed in July, showed that his lungs “were filled with fluid to the extent of nearly doubling their normal weight, and frothy pulmonary edema fluid filled his main airways all the way up in the trachea.” Medical experts have repeatedly warned that autopsies of people executed by lethal injection reveal pulmonary edema, an excruciating sensation akin to drowning. But legal challenges based on such evidence have been mostly rejected.
Although the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel or unusual punishment, the prospect of pain for the condemned tends to be easily dismissed. Murder victims, after all, are not generally granted much consideration when it comes to their own suffering. Though the Navajo Nation had decried Mitchell’s death sentence for years, the victims’ families had come out in support for Mitchell’s execution before he died.
At the FCC Terre Haute Training Center north of the prison, where prison officials had set up a media center, the father of Tiffany Lee came to face reporters following Mitchell’s execution. He wore jeans, a baseball cap, and a blue surgical mask, standing silently as a lawyer delivered a statement on his behalf. “I have waited 19 years to get justice for my daughter, Tiffany,” it read. “I will never get Tiffany back, but I hope that this will bring some closure.” He thanked the Trump administration for carrying out the execution.
A similar scene followed Nelson’s execution two days later. While Battista went to reunite with her sisters and fellow activists at the Dollar General, the mother of Pamela Butler, Cherri West, addressed reporters next to her daughter and niece. They wore white T-shirts bearing a picture of Butler against angel’s wings and reading “Rest In Peace Pammy.”
West took Nelson’s silence as proof that he had no remorse for what he did to her daughter. “So therefore I have no remorse for him,” she said. She believed that her daughter had been guiding her over the years to keep fighting for his execution. “I’m gonna have to start a new hobby because I’ve focused so much on doing this for the last 20 years,” she said. While other victims’ families had been angered that the federal government forced them to risk exposure to the pandemic in order to witness the execution, West was grateful to the Trump administration for paying her way to Terre Haute. “They made us feel like family.”
In an email, I asked the Bureau of Prisons whether loved ones or representatives of people who were executed were offered a chance to speak to reporters. “Family members of the condemned, lawyers, and spiritual advisors may certainly address the media,” BOP spokesperson Kristie Breshears replied. “However, the Bureau of Prisons will not facilitate these interactions, or permit them on government property.”
Battista discovered this firsthand. She had been instructed to park at the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department before Nelson’s execution but left when BOP staffers did not show up on time to pick her up. Battista drove to the training center, where she knew she could find BOP officials. But she was quickly ushered away.
After I left her house the next morning, Battista got a message through the St. Mary of the Woods website. It was from Nelson’s twin brother, Kenneth. It was not particularly easy to contact her through the site, she explained. “He worked hard to find me.” He thanked her for accompanying his brother as he died.