Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, has a new execution date set for January 12, 2021 — eight days before a new presidential administration that promises to end the federal death penalty takes over. Attorney General William Barr rescheduled her initial execution date days after a federal judge gave Montgomery’s attorneys more time to prepare a petition for clemency because two of her longtime attorneys contracted COVID-19 shortly after visiting her.
The federal government has not executed a woman since 1953.
In 2007, Montgomery was convicted of federal kidnapping resulting in death after strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett and kidnapping the fetus she cut from Stinnett’s womb. Montgomery’s attorneys say she was in a dissociative state at the time, one of her mental health issues stemming from decades of sexual abuse, trafficking and trauma.
Until recently, a federal prisoner hadn’t been put to death under a lame-duck president’s administration in the United States in more than a century. (The November 19 execution of a Black man, Orlando Hall, who sought relief on the grounds of being convicted by an all-White jury in the 1990s, was the first lame-duck federal execution in more than 100 years, according to Death Penalty Information Center.) Five other federal prisoners, including Montgomery, are scheduled to be put to death between now and inauguration.
In a statement to The 19th, Montgomery’s attorneys called the government’s actions a “calculated attempt” to rush the execution despite concerns about Montgomery’s mental health and the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the rescheduled execution date. In previous court documents, the U.S. attorneys representing Barr argued Montgomery’s 16-person legal team, who can counsel remotely, did not need the extension to prepare for clemency, pointing to the nature of Montgomery’s crime as reason to move forward.
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. Montgomery’s clemency petition is due December 24.
Montgomery’s attorneys are seeking commutation, which would allow her to serve life in prison without parole rather than being put to death by lethal injection. Federal standards describe the relief as an “extraordinary remedy” that can only be granted by the president. Traditionally, commutations have been reserved for undue severity of sentence, critical illness or old age, demonstrated rehabilitation while in custody, or aiding prosecutors with an investigation.
President Donald Trump has issued 28 presidential pardons and 16 commutations, which reduce prison time. Three of those pardons, which are a symbol of forgiveness, went to women, one of whom was the late Susan B. Anthony. Trump has commuted six women’s sentences.
The case of Alice Marie Johnson, 65, who served nearly 22 years in prison for nonviolent cocaine and money laundering charges, garnered national and high- profile support that led to Trump commuting her sentence in 2018. She was fully pardoned in August, one day after she spoke at the Republican National Convention.
In February, Trump pardoned Angela Stanton-King, who gave birth while incarcerated for car theft conspiracy charges. Shortly after her pardoning, Stanton-King announced she would run against John Lewis as a Republican challenger for his seat. After the civil rights giant passed away, Stanton-King, who has touted QAnon conspiracy theories, ultimately lost to Democrat Nikema Williams, who became the first woman to serve as a representative in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District.
The Trump administration has already carried out eight executions during the pandemic.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to end the federal death penalty, which informally stopped in 2003. But, as a senator, Biden authored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known as the Crime Bill. In addition to its better known provisions such as the three-strikes law, Biden also expanded the list of capital offenses that could trigger the death penalty.
In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush’s administration carried out the first federal executions since Congress reinstated the practice in 1988, using a three-drug cocktail: Sodium thiopental to act like a sedative, pancuronium bromide to paralyze muscle movement, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
In recent years, the federal government and other states have not been able to procure sodium thiopental. When Barr announced that the federal government would resume the death penalty in July 2019, new protocol said federal prisoners on death row will be given pentobarbital.
A lawsuit on behalf of men on federal death row, some of whom have already been put to death, challenges the federal government’s use of the drug without a prescription, which is mandated by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Attorneys cite evidence that the use of pentobarbital can make the person injected think they’re drowning or being asphyxiated as fluid rapidly builds up in the lungs. On November 18, one day before Hall’s execution date, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision allowing the federal government to administer pentobarbital without a prescription. Hall was injected with the drug the next day.