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Lisa Montgomery, the only woman currently on federal death row, is scheduled to receive a lethal injection on December 8. Her attorneys are in a fast-tracked fight to save their client, whose severe mental illnesses should absolve her from being “exterminated from the human race,” said one attorney on the case.
The last time the federal government executed a woman was in 1953.
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.
On October 16, the Department of Justice informed Montgomery that she had just short of eight weeks to live. “Her conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal, and her request for collateral relief was rejected by every court that considered it,” the Justice Department said in a statement at the time.
Montgomery has been on suicide watch ever since, placed in solitary confinement where the lights are always on. She will have to travel from Texas to an Indiana men’s prison, where all federal executions are conducted. This further highlights the “reckless” actions of Attorney General William Barr, one of Montgomery’s attorneys said.
A letter from TJ Watson, the warden of the Indiana prison carrying out the execution, informed Montgomery that she had 30 days to put together her clemency application. With days remaining, attorneys for Montgomery filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the Department of Justice, asking for more time. Her federal public defenders are currently incapacitated after contracting COVID-19 shortly after a series of visits with Montgomery at the Federal Medical Center Carswell. A coronavirus outbreak at the prison, located in Fort Worth, Texas, has killed six people.
The Department of Justice had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication, and has not released a statement about the lawsuits.
Attorneys Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell received exclusive permission to meet with Montgomery, as visitation and in-person client visits largely halted during the pandemic. In court filings, they describe a woman in distress, who’s dissociated from reality.
While on suicide watch, prison guards placed Montgomery in a “safety smock,” a loose garment fastened with Velcro, frequently leaving Montgomery exposed — guards denied her access to underwear for two weeks, the lawsuit says. At the end of October, Montgomery was permitted mesh underwear. She’s rationed four squares of toilet paper per use, and her trips to the toilet are monitored.
“Mrs. Montgomery’s conditions of confinement have exacerbated her mental illness,” the lawsuit reads. “They also limit Mrs. Montgomery’s ability to participate in the preparation of application for clemency. She remains preoccupied by her access to her underwear, as well as the fear that prison staff will take away other small privileges.”
Henry and Harwell are currently quarantined and exhibiting symptoms of the virus, unable to prepare the clemency application under the time constraints. They are also no longer able to meet with their client in person.
“Defendant Barr deliberately scheduled Mrs. Montgomery’s execution during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, without affording her lawyers the same degree of notice afforded to other death-sentenced prisoners,” the lawsuit reads.
Montgomery’s execution process has been uncharacteristically rushed at every juncture. On August 3, the Supreme Court denied her final petition. Seventy-four days later, the DOJ set an execution date. The new lawsuit points out that among five federal death row prisoners who sought clemency this year, there was on average a four-and-a-half-year gap between the high court’s ruling on a final post-conviction petition and receiving an execution date.
“I was really shocked when they set her execution date,” said Sandra Babcock, faculty director of Cornell University’s Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, who filed the lawsuit against the DOJ. “It is such an extraordinarily compelling case for clemency that I never believed — even this administration — that they would seek to execute her this year.”
In July 2019, Barr announced the federal death penalty would resume after an almost two decade lapse. Seven people have been executed since then, with three more slated before the end of the year, including Montgomery.
President Donald Trump has pardoned two living women during his tenure (he also pardoned the late suffragist Susan B. Anthony). However, Montgomery’s lawyers are not asking for her to be released from prison, rather for her death sentence to be commuted to life in prison without parole.
Babcock said that in an analysis of 18 similar cases involving murders of pregnant women in pursuit of their fetuses, Montgomery is the only one to end up on death row.
“In addition to her trauma of course and her history of sexual violence, it’s the connection between that trauma history and the crime that she committed that makes it particularly compelling,” Babcock said.
Montgomery was born with brain damage because her mother drank throughout her pregnancy, according to court documents. She grew up in a physically abusive home, and Montgomery was sexually assaulted and raped by her stepfather, and her mother invited men into their home to rape Montgomery in exchange for money and other services, the documents said. Montgomery’s trauma manifested in her spacing out in school frequently, and as she got older, she had trouble focusing, finishing tasks and processing information. A trauma expert said that the abuse Montgomery survived led her to develop a dissociative disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to being bipolar and epileptic.
In 2004, Montgomery was in her second marriage when her step-brother (also her ex-husband), filed for custody of their two kids. She told him that she was pregnant, an impossibility because Montgomery’s mother talked her into getting sterilized. Her ex-husband threatened to use the fake pregnancy against her in court.
Two days after this argument, Montgomery met up with 23-year-old Stinnett, a dog breeder, under the guise of adopting a puppy. Stinnett died from the knife injuries. In 2007, Montgomery was sentenced to death, and has been on death row ever since. Her attorneys say she has since expressed “deep remorse.”
Dozens of current and former prosecutors and more than a thousand individuals and organizations issued statements of support to stay Montgomery’s execution. An online petition asking the president to commute Montgomery’s sentence has garnered more than 2,800 signatures.
It is likely that the federal death penalty would end again under a Biden-Harris administration: President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on the promise to work to eliminate the federal death penalty.
“For me it highlights the arbitrariness of scheduling her execution when they did,” Babcock said. “If they had scheduled the execution, for early February, two months later, she wouldn’t be executed.”