The execution of Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, has been delayed to give her attorneys more time to prepare a clemency application after two of them contracted COVID-19. Montgomery’s longtime attorneys have until December 24 to petition for clemency, U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss ordered Thursday. Montgomery cannot be executed before December 31, the ruling says.

This comes in response to a lawsuit to stay the execution after Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell, two of Montgomery’s attorneys, fell ill after visiting their client at the Federal Medical Center Carswell, where an outbreak has killed six people. Both tested positive for COVID-19 with days remaining to file a petition for Montgomery to serve life in prison without parole instead of face lethal injection.

“The district court’s ruling gives Lisa Montgomery a meaningful opportunity to prepare and present a clemency application after her attorneys recover from COVID,” said Sandra Babcock, faculty director of Cornell University’s Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, in a statement. 

Babcock, whose organization filed the lawsuit against the Department of Justice, said that Montgomery’s case “presents compelling ground for clemency” because of a background of mental illness and childhood trauma stemming from years of rape and assault.  

The U.S. Attorneys representing Attorney General William Barr argued that Henry and Harwell represent just a slice of Montgomery’s 16-person legal team who can counsel remotely, court documents say. The defense also argued that a court order would intrude on the president’s executive function to postpone the execution date. 

Montgomery was convicted of federal kidnapping resulting in death in 2007. She strangled Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and used a knife to cut the fetus from Stinnett’s womb. Montgomery’s attorneys argue that she was in a dissociative state when their client took the baby, alive, home and began to care for her as if it were her own. Court documents say that Montgomery was diagnosed with pseudocyesis at the time. 

Defense attorneys argue that the pandemic has imposed constraints on everyone, including other federal death-row prisoners who submitted clemency applications. The nature of Montgomery’s crime and the “public interest in allowing the execution” to move forward is overwhelming, court documents say. 

Montgomery and her legal team found out about the initial December 8 execution date on October 16, just 74 days after the Supreme Court denied their final appeal. Court filings say that five federal death row prisoners who sought clemency this year had four-and-a-half years on average between the high court’s ruling on a final post-conviction petition and receiving an execution date. 

In a previous interview, Babcock told The 19th she was shocked to receive such a fast-tracked execution date, especially because the Biden-Harris administration will likely end the federal death penalty that drastically kicked up again under Barr. This year alone, the federal government has executed more people this year than in the last 60 years combined.