At 1:31 am on Wednesday, Lisa Montgomery was pronounced dead. She was the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years. “We should recognize Lisa Montgomery’s execution for what it was: the vicious, unlawful, and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power,” her attorney Kelley Henry stated.
On Monday night, a federal court granted a stay of execution until Montgomery could undergo a competency hearing to determine her mental capacity. On Tuesday afternoon, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued another stay, ruling that the date of her execution violates the sentencing court’s judgment. It was the third keeping Montgomery from death. A previous stay, issued by the D.C. Circuit court, found that the federal government had not followed the Federal Death Penalty Act when setting Montgomery’s execution date.
Those stays pushed any new execution date past the inauguration of Joe Biden, who has pledged to end the federal death penalty. There was hope for a woman whose life had been scarred by sexual abuse and torture.
But the Trump administration fought back. On Tuesday, a Chicago appeals court sided with the government and lifted Monday’s stay. Later that day, the Supreme Court vacated the DC court’s ruling and rejected the remaining applications.
Moments after the Supreme Court decision was announced, the white vans that transport witnesses to the execution chamber left the media center. One hour and fifteen minutes later, Montgomery was dead. According to Henry, Montgomery was denied a prayer with her spiritual adviser. “It was a needless indignity and a deprivation of really her basic humanity,” Amy Harwell, another one of Montgomery’s lawyers, told a HuffPost reporter following the execution. “He could have provided comfort and a prayer.”
In 2004, Montgomery drove from her Kansas home to Missouri, ostensibly to buy a puppy from Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a dog breeder who was eight months pregnant. She strangled Stinnett and removed Stinnett’s fetus. She returned home and attempted to pass off the newborn girl as her own. She was arrested the next day, and the baby was returned to Stinnett’s husband.
When announcing her execution date, the Department of Justice labeled her action “an especially heinous murder.” Her actions appear cruel and senseless, but in the context of her life, we can see that her crime was the culmination of a lifetime of violence, rape, untreated mental illness, and societal failure to stop the sexual abuse.
The majority of incarcerated women have experienced physical and sexual abuse before their arrest, but what Montgomery suffered was extreme. Her mother, Judy Shaughnessy, beat and tormented all of her children, proudly telling an investigator that her daughter’s first sentence was “Don’t spank me, it hurts.” Montgomery’s first stepfather, Jack Kleiner, regularly raped Montgomery. Her mother knew about the rapes, testifying about them in later divorce proceedings, but did not stop them. Instead, according to multiple court documents, both her mother and stepfather allowed other men to rape the teenager as well.
Montgomery was failed repeatedly by other adults, including the divorce court judge, a counselor, and Montgomery’s cousin who was a deputy sheriff but who, when learning about the severe sexual violence, did nothing to intervene. On her own, Montgomery tried to escape her abusive environment and caretakers. In high school, she was accepted into Upward Bound, a program for children who would be the first in their families to attend college. Realizing that college was financially out of reach, she planned to enlist in the Air Force upon graduation. Those plans were scuttled when Montgomery became pregnant, disqualifying her from military service. She married and had four children within five years. After her fourth child, her mother and first husband pressed her into being sterilized.
Montgomery increasingly exhibited signs of mental illness. She believed she was pregnant several times, even buying a crib and other baby items. She never told her second husband about her tubal ligation and, in 2004, told him that she was pregnant. When her first husband threatened to expose her imaginary pregnancy, she drove to Stinnett’s house, killed her, and took her baby.
In 2007, Montgomery went to trial. Her initial defense team included Judy Clarke, a renowned capital defense attorney who began building a defense based on Montgomery’s lifelong history of suffering extreme abuse and sexual violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, and mental illnesses. But the lead attorney, Dave Owen, had Clarke dismissed from the team. At trial, Montgomery’s remaining attorneys presented nearly no evidence of her lifelong abuse. Prosecutors, on the other hand, used Montgomery’s mental illness against her, arguing that she was an unfit mother who neglected her children. They also sought the death penalty, and she was convicted and sentenced to death.
In prison, Montgomery was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder and placed on a regimen of medications to stabilize her mental health.
In October, with an execution date scheduled, prison officials moved her to a suicide cell where the bright lights were never turned off. She was not allowed to have any of her belongings—no books, legal papers, photos of her children, or even her wedding ring. Male guards watched her around the clock, including when she used the toilet. Her clothing was taken away, and she was given only a rubber smock with Velcro straps, commonly known as a suicide smock. Montgomery’s mental health rapidly deteriorated. She heard her dead mother berating her, and thought God spoke to her through connect-the-dot puzzles.
But with Covid-19 ravaging the country and many of its prisons, mental health experts have been unable to visit and determine in a formal report the current state of her mental health. Then, her attorneys contracted Covid-19 during one of their many visits to the prison in Fort Worth, Tex., to help prepare her clemency petition.
On January 8, four days before her execution date, Montgomery’s attorneys, now largely recovered from the coronavirus, filed a petition with the federal court in Indiana, which has jurisdiction over the prison at Terre Haute, where all federal executions take place. They argued that Montgomery’s mental state renders her unable to understand why she is being executed, a violation of her Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment, and requested a stay so that the court could hold a competency hearing to establish Montgomery’s mental state. On Monday, the court ruled in Montgomery’s favor, a decision reversed the following day by an appeals court and the Supreme Court.
On Monday, Montgomery was placed in handcuffs, leg irons, and a belly chain and escorted by federal marshals to the federal prison in Terre Haute, which is in the middle of a Covid-19 outbreak. As of January 11, 103 incarcerated people, including the two men scheduled for execution after Montgomery and at least 31 others on death row, are positive for Covid-19. In total, 630 prisoners have recovered, and two have died.
The pandemic garnered Montgomery unlikely allies in her quest for a stay—former corrections officials in Indiana wrote an open letter to Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen urging him to postpone the remaining federal executions, including Montgomery’s, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among prison staff and their surrounding home communities. “According to the Warden, the executions pull scores of staff at Terre Haute from their duties and require them to mix with between 50 and 125 out of state witnesses and staff who travel to the prison from around the country,” they wrote. “Some of these out of state federal staff are traveling from states where the highly contagious variant of Covid-19 has been documented in the community.”
It’s unclear how much Montgomery understood during those last hours of life. According to her attorneys, her mental health deteriorated even more after her transfer. “She has completely lost touch with reality, which is what her lawyers feared would happen when she arrived in Terre Haute,” Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty, told me. (Babcock filed for a stay of execution when Montgomery’s attorneys were ill with Covid-19.)
“The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight. Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame,” Montgomery’s attorney Henry said minutes after the Supreme Court’s decision. “No one disagrees that Mrs. Montgomery was the victim of unspeakable torture and sex trafficking. No one can credibly dispute Mrs. Montgomery’s long-standing debilitating mental disease—diagnosed and treated for the first time by the Bureau of Prisons’ own doctors. Our Constitution forbids the execution of a person who is unable to rationally understand her execution. The current administration knows this. And they killed her anyway.”