The Trump administration executed Lisa Montgomery, 52, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, ending the tortured life of the only woman on federal death row.
The government killed Montgomery with a lethal injection of pentobarbital over objections by her lawyers that her mental state rendered her incompetent for execution.
Montgomery, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, had lost touch with reality and was unable to comprehend what was happening, her lawyers wrote in court filings before her death. In the days leading up to her execution, she was having auditory hallucinations of her abusive mother’s voice, her lawyers said, and believed that God was speaking with her through connect-the-dot puzzles.
She was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m. at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. She was the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.
“The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight,” said Kelley Henry, one of Montgomery’s lawyers, in a statement. “Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”
In what her lawyers called a final insult, the government did not allow Montgomery’s spiritual adviser, Assemblies of God pastor John Francisco, to stand with her in the execution chamber.
“It was a needless indignity and a deprivation of really her basic humanity,” said Amy Harwell, another one of Montgomery’s lawyers, in a phone call following the execution. “He could have provided comfort and a prayer.”
Montgomery was a textbook example of the potent effect of childhood abuse. On the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale, which tallies how much trauma a child suffers before the age of 18, she scored a 9 out of 10.
According to reports from family members, her mother beat her and withheld all forms of affection. Her stepfather began to molest her at age 11. Later, he built a room onto the side of a trailer to isolate her from the family for the purposes of sexual violence. Even after Montgomery’s mother walked in on her husband raping her daughter, she did not report it to authorities. Montgomery told a cousin at the time that her parents were also allowing other men to rape her in exchange for work done around the house.
Experts who have evaluated Montgomery believe that she began to dissociate with reality to survive the extreme trauma of her childhood.
“Lisa’s childhood in which she was brutally beaten, humiliated, and ultimately raped for several years by a stepfather, created conditions for her to develop profoundly distorted perceptions of interpersonal relationships, human emotions and even her own body,” wrote Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist at the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture who examined Montgomery in prison. “These developmental impairments had tragic consequences in this woman’s life and the life of those around her.”
Montgomery was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a woman who was eight months pregnant. Montgomery strangled Stinnett and removed the fetus, pretending to friends and family that the baby was hers.
The baby girl was rescued the following day and returned to her father. The child, now 16, has not spoken publicly about the incident.
Montgomery’s lawyers contend that their client killed Stinnett during a psychotic episode. Since her arrest, she has been medicated and received psychiatric care. She was incarcerated at a Texas prison for women with special mental health needs prior to her execution.
The crime of fetal abduction is extraordinarily rare.
Researchers at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide were only able to find 16 instances of similar crimes in the U.S. in the last 35 years. In most cases, the perpetrator was a woman with documented mental illness.
Montgomery’s execution followed a flurry of last-minute legal exchanges between her lawyers and the Department of Justice.
Three separate federal courts issued a stay of execution in the hours before Montgomery was scheduled to be put to death.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana was receptive to Montgomery’s claim that she was not competent to be killed and temporarily blocked her execution pending a competency evaluation. The government appealed, and the stay of execution was vacated by the U.S. Court Of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. The other two stays, which involved procedural legal claims, were vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court, clearing the path for the government to proceed with the execution.
Montgomery was the 11th person executed under the Trump administration, which restarted federal capital punishment last summer amid the coronavirus pandemic. Before Trump took office, the last federal execution had taken place in 2003.
Holding executions during a pandemic has resulted in predictable issues.
Both of Montgomery’s attorneys contracted COVID-19 after traveling to visit her in prison to prepare her clemency petition. Her execution was originally scheduled for Dec. 8 but was temporarily blocked to give her lawyers time to recover. Others, such as the spiritual adviser for death row prisoner Orlando Hall, contracted the coronavirus after attending an execution.
The Trump administration had planned to execute two other people in its last week — Corey Johnson on Thursday and Dustin Higgs on Friday. But on Tuesday, a federal judge halted their executions due to their recent COVID-19 illnesses. Both men contracted the coronavirus in December during a massive outbreak at the federal correctional complex where death row is housed.
The men have argued in court filings that their lung damage from coronavirus is likely to make their executions excruciatingly painful, violating constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The government is appealing the temporary stay.
President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to be inaugurated in one week, is opposed to the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use. He is expected to pause federal executions once he takes office.
Henry, Montgomery’s lawyer, said that she was disappointed that outgoing President Donald Trump did not commute Montgomery’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“He had not even the decency to formally deny ― or even acknowledge ― Lisa’s clemency application, though it is hard to imagine a case more deserving of executive intervention than this one,” she said in a statement. “This failed government adds itself to the long list of people and institutions who failed Lisa.”
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