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TERRE HAUTE, Indiana — Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, made a calendar counting down to January 20 — Inauguration Day. She knew President-elect Joe Biden had promised to end the federal death penalty. “That’s how positive I’m being,” Montgomery told her sister Diane Mattingly during a December phone call.
On January 13, seven days before Biden will take office, the federal government executed Montgomery, 52. In 2004, she killed Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a pregnant woman, and kidnapped the child that she cut from Stinnett’s stomach. Montgomery’s attorneys and family say she was in the midst of a dissociative episode.
A district court blocked the execution of two people later this week, which means Montgomery could be the 11th and final execution under the Trump administration, which resumed federal executions after a nearly two decade hiatus. Prior to Montgomery, the federal government had not executed a woman since 1953.
Montgomery’s attorneys fought well into Tuesday night, asking for more time in filing after filing. Close to midnight, only one stay from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals was keeping Montgomery alive.
The Trump administration fought back, successfully overturning appeals until finally the Supreme Court allowed the Justice Department to move forward. Montgomery was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m.
One of the matters the Supreme Court also dismissed was a stay to conduct competency hearing. Montgomery’s lawyers attempted to prove that Montgomery’s mental state had declined, rendering her incompetent for an execution. Monday night, a district court in Indiana halted the execution pending a competency evaluation. The Justice Department appealed all the way to the highest court.
Montgomery’s attorneys told justices in court filings that after their client was given her execution warrant in October, she was placed on suicide watch. A physician said this disrupted Montgomery’s routine, resulting in some of her mental health issues resurfacing. In court documents, her attorneys detail Montgomery’s bouts of dissociation, hallucinations in which she heard her mother’s voice and nightmares about sexual assault.
Montgomery’s attorneys wanted more time to show the courts that her present mental state was connected to a lifetime of trauma, as outlined in the clemency petition they sent to Trump on Christmas Eve. The petition asked the president to commute Montgomery’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole and included written support from 41 former prosecutors, and nearly a thousand organizations and individuals working to combat violence against women, human trafficking and child abuse. Advocates for people with serious mental illness and their families also signed a letter in support of Montgomery.
“In the past week, we have seen just how far President Trump and his administration will go in their disdain for justice and the rule of law. This failed government adds itself to the long list of people and institutions who failed Lisa,” Montgomery’s longtime attorney Kelley Henry said in a statement just before the execution took place. “We should recognize Lisa Montgomery’s execution for what it was: the vicious, unlawful, and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power. We cannot let this happen again.”
The clemency petition Henry and other lawyers for Montgomery submitted argued that by stopping Montgomery’s execution, Trump had the power to end the stigmatization of mental illness, to send a message to the thousands of women who have been the victim of childhood rape and trafficking that their pain matters, and to recognize that executions are not essential operations that must continue during an epidemic.
“You alone write the ending to this story — does it end with more pain?” the petition reads. “Or does it end with hope, mercy, and understanding? We pray it is the latter.”
Through court documents, testimony and medical records, the petition painted a picture of Montgomery’s life up until the murder.
Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, drank while Montgomery was in utero, leaving her with brain damage, court documents say. Montgomery’s older half-sister, Diane Mattingly, told reporters last week that Shaughnessy repeatedly beat Montgomery and Mattingly.
After Mattingly and Montgomery’s father left the family, Shaughnessy’s boyfriends would come into the room the sisters shared to rape Mattingly. When the sexual abuse started, Mattingly said she felt she was “old enough to take it,” rather than her younger sister.
“The beds were so close that if we reached out, we could touch hands,” Mattingly told reporters. “And I just knew that while this man was raping me, I had to be quiet because I couldn’t wake her up. Because if she woke up, he would do it to her too.”
When Mattingly turned 8, a social worker removed her from the home. The sisters wouldn’t reunite until Montgomery’s murder trial 30 years later. Mattingly said her foster family was loving and supportive and provided her an environment in which she could heal, but her sister only suffered more abuse.
“I had a good foundation. Lisa did not,” Mattingly said “And she broke. She literally broke.”
With Mattingly out of the home, Montgomery endured years of sexual assault, rape, physical and mental abuse, and her own mother trafficking her to pay roofers, plumbers and other handymen, the clemency petition reads.
Shaughnessy married Jack Kleiner shortly after Mattingly left. The family ultimately moved to a deserted plot of land in Osage County, Oklahoma, where her stepfather erected what Montgomery’s attorneys called “the rape room,” accessible from the backside of their trailer. He repeatedly raped Montgomery and invited other men, according to the petition, some of whom paid her mother money to physically abuse Montgomery.
Court records say Shaughnessy divorced Kleiner in 1984 upon witnessing him rape Montgomery. At the divorce proceedings, Montgomery, then 16, testified about some of the abuse at the urging of her mother, but neither Kleiner nor Shaughnessy were ever prosecuted.
Montgomery’s attorneys say that Shaughnessy pressured Montgomery around the time she was 17 into marrying her stepbrother, who was also allegedly abusive, the petition reads, raping and physically assaulting her.
After she was imprisoned, the Federal Bureau of Prisons diagnosed Montgomery with bipolar disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her symptoms manifest as dissociation, losing contact with reality and with who she is. There were sometimes periods in which Montgomery thought she was pregnant, a condition called pseudocyesis. Her attorneys argue that the crime may never have happened had Montgomery received treatment and medication sooner, or been able to afford the few counseling sessions she had pre-incarceration.
“Everything about this case is overwhelmingly sad,” the petition to Trump reads. “As human beings we want to turn away. It is easy to call Mrs. Montgomery evil and a monster … The harder thing to do is to face all of the facts, all of the failures, all of the betrayals, and come to a new understanding. With understanding comes hope. You can do Justice and exercise Mercy at the same time.”
Sandra Babcock, an attorney for Montgomery and faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said that this case, “unique in its horror,” was also an example of how society has failed girls and women who are victims of sexual violence, and how the legal system exacerbates the consequences of their victimization. Babcock believes that Montgomery’s legal defense did not properly take trauma into account during her trial.
“We have not seen any other case where lawyers have failed so spectacularly to present evidence that was at their fingertips had they asked the right questions about how Lisa was subjected to rape after rape, to incest and to child sex trafficking from her toddler years,” Babcock told reporters last week.
Babcock and Montgomery’s other attorneys point to a list of 16 women who attacked pregnant women with the intent of taking the unborn child, killing the mother, fetus or both in the process. Thirteen of these cases resulted in a sentence other than the death penalty; the remaining three include a commutation and two suicides before conviction.
“Every single woman around the country who has committed a similar crime to Lisa’s is not facing execution,” Babcock told reporters last week. “And that is because in Lisa’s case, the prosecutors failed to recognize and in fact, downplayed the significance of her unrelenting sexual torture and abuse.”