Lisa Montgomery was put to death early Wednesday morning at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, shortly after the Supreme Court cleared the path for her execution.
Serious doubts about whether Montgomery, who was mentally ill, was competent for execution did not stop the government from killing her.
The 52-year-old, who was convicted of the 2004 murder of a pregnant woman, had been the only woman on death row. For years, she had been housed at a prison in Texas for women with special mental health needs and treated for bipolar disorder and complex PTSD stemming from her abusive childhood.
In the days leading up to her death, her lawyers argued that she was incompetent for execution because she was in a state of psychosis and not meaningfully aware of what was about to happen to her. The Eighth Amendment prohibits executing a prisoner who cannot rationally understand why they are to be executed.
On these grounds, a federal court granted Montgomery a temporary stay less than 24 hours before her execution was scheduled to allow for her mental health to be evaluated, but that hearing never happened. The government appealed the stay and it was overturned by the U.S. Court Of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
Montgomery was put to death one week before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who opposes the federal death penalty and has said he will work to end its use. Two more executions are scheduled for later this week, although a temporary stay is in place for both.
Less than an hour after Montgomery’s execution, at about 2:30 a.m. local time, HuffPost spoke with her lawyers over the phone. After a flurry of last minute legal filings attempting to save her life, they were finally resting in a hotel near the prison. There, they learned that a number of Bureau of Prisons staff who had assisted in Montgomery’s execution were also staying at the same hotel.
Amy Harwell is one of Montgomery’s attorneys, who contracted COVID-19 in November after visiting Montgomery in prison. She gave HuffPost a first-person account of her client’s last day alive and her death.
I understand you were with Montgomery today, the day of the execution. Can you describe what happened?
I went to prison in the morning and spent four hours with her. During that time, her spiritual adviser John Francisco came. He gave us all communion, and talked with Lisa about if things went poorly tonight, how he hoped to care for her while in the execution chamber. He knew Lisa when she was a little girl. He was the bus driver who picked her up to take her to church, and his mom was her Sunday school teacher.
At one point, he fished out of his wallet this tiny photograph. He flipped it over so Lisa could see and she gasped. On the back of it, it said “Lisa, 7, second grade.” Lisa had given him the photo when she was 7 years old. He had held on to it ever since.
He told her that after the execution started, he intended to sing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace” while the chemicals flowed. That was the plan. But when we arrived at the execution house, [Bureau of Prisons staff] did not allow him to be with her. I explained that he was her designated spiritual adviser and needed to be in the chamber with her. A woman said she’d go check, and then she came running back and said it was too late. Lisa was on the gurney, all strapped in.
She wiggled her fingers a little, waving at us and we locked eyes with her and waited for the end to happen. She was deprived of her spiritual adviser. It was a needless indignity, and a deprivation of really her basic humanity. That in her final moments they tried to take her sense of herself as a loved child of God is an insult beyond comprehension.
How was she doing today when you spent time with her?
Lisa’s baseline state is pretty severely dissociated. From the moment we got there today, she was very detached from reality, much more so even than we had ever experienced before. One of the first things I said to her was, “Lisa you’re so far away from me. Can you get here with us?” And she was just so not with us. She was not following conversations. She was not processing the information I gave her. At one point I asked her to repeat back to me what I just said, and she was not able to do that.
We had just gotten the stay [from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana] and I spent the day thinking, I’m going to get to present this proof in court! My client is completely disconnected from reality. Instead they killed her.
How does it feel knowing that, even though a federal judge believed there was evidence that Montgomery was too mentally ill to be executed, she was not allowed a competency hearing before her death?
The order from [U.S. Judge James Patrick Hanlon] was a 28-page order that was very well reasoned. He thought that we made a very strong showing. So the idea that a judge says this rings the bell and somehow we don’t even get to go to court? I hate to use the word unconscionable again but I’m sorry, it’s late and I don’t have enough words.
You witnessed her execution. Can you describe what she went through?
We have received quite a bit of training from medical personnel as to what to look for in circumstances of someone receiving lethal injections of huge amounts of chemicals. After her eyes closed, there was some movement in her mouth. There was a point where I was unclear exactly what I was seeing in her mouth, which was open, whether there was some bubbling or whether movement of her tongue. I tend to think it was a bubble. And then there was a rolling movement in her lower chest, which I have been trained by our consultants to know indicates an obstruction of the airways.
Where are you right now?
We’re in a hotel room. We were told that 65 of the government’s employees who participated in tonight’s “event” — as they refer to it euphemistically — are also at this hotel, which adds a layer of surreal upon surreal.
There was some discussion of printing out the op-ed by Sister Helen Prejean [the Catholic nun who called on the Department of Justice to stop the executions] and slipping it under some windshield wipers. So far we’ve managed to not.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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