Update: On November 23, the federal government scheduled a new execution date for Lisa Montgomery: January 12, 2021—eight days before inauguration.
From a young age, Lisa Marie Montgomery endured brutal physical and sexual assaults at the hands of her mother and stepfather, leading to severe mental illness. Now 52, she is set to be the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years.
In 2004, Montgomery contacted Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a dog breeder who was eight months pregnant. On the pretext of buying a puppy, Montgomery, who lived in Kansas, drove to Stinnett’s Missouri home. Montgomery strangled Stinnett, cut open her abdomen, and removed her fetus. She took the baby home and told her husband that she had gone into labor while shopping.
She was arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to death in federal court. (The baby was returned to Stinnett’s husband.) Montgomery is the only woman on federal death row.
In July 2020, after a nearly 20-year hiatus, the federal government resumed executions. Since then, it has killed seven people. An eighth man, Orlando Cordia Hall, is scheduled to die November 19, and a ninth, Brandon Bernard, to be executed on December 10. Montgomery’s execution date is set for December 8, a parting cruelty from the Trump administration. If the execution can be delayed until inauguration, Montgomery will likely live. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end the federal death penalty.
The Department of Justice, when announcing her execution, labeled her action an “especially heinous murder.” When viewed on their own, Montgomery’s actions are horrific and seemingly senseless. But viewed in the context of her life, which was riddled with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, we should ask whether a mentally ill person who has suffered a lifetime of devastating trauma and violence—and been failed repeatedly by various systems—should be put to death.
The majority of women in prison have experienced physical and sexual abuse before arrest. Even so, Montgomery’s life is extreme and grisly. Her mother, Judy Shaughnessy, abused all of her children. “You never felt like you were safe,” Diane Mattingly, Montgomery’s half-sister, told me. “At any moment, she would turn on you.” She recalled instances when her stepmother would strip her naked and push her out of the house. She also recalled multiple instances when Shaughnessy’s adult friends repeatedly raped her. Despite the ongoing abuse, Mattingly attempted to protect her younger sister from Shaughnessy’s violence.
But when Mattingly was 8 years old, social workers took her away. “I thought it was because they knew what was going on in the home,” she said. She later learned that her removal was because of her father’s abandonment and her stepmother’s lack of legal guardianship. Four-year-old Lisa and their baby sister, Patty, were left behind.
Months later, Shaughnessy moved in with Jack Kleiner, who would strip the girls naked before beating them. When Montgomery was in eighth grade, he began raping her. Shaughnessy didn’t intervene; instead, according to multiple court documents, she allowed other adult men to rape her daughter as well.
When they heard about the abuse, people in authority repeatedly failed to intervene. Montgomery confided in her cousin, a deputy sheriff; he told her to tell the police but did nothing himself. A social worker assigned to investigate allegations of Kleiner’s sexual abuse referred the case to local prosecutors, but they failed to follow up. Later, Shaughnessy cited Kleiner’s sexual abuse of Montgomery as one of her reasons for divorce. The divorce court called her failure to protect “inexcusable” but did not report the abuse to child welfare or other authorities.
The continual physical abuse took its toll. Montgomery began suffering seizures and neurological dysfunction, which doctors later attributed to repeated head injuries inflicted by her mother, stepfather, and stepbrother.
At age 18, under pressure from her mother and new stepfather, Montgomery married her 25-year-old stepbrother, Carl Boman, who, according to multiple court documents, also physically and sexually abused her. By then, the cumulative effects of a lifetime of trauma began to show. Montgomery increasingly exhibited signs of disassociation and depression. After the birth of her fourth child, possibly coerced by her mother and husband, Montgomery had a tubal ligation. Her mental health continued to deteriorate and, several times, despite her sterilization, she believed she was pregnant, even buying a crib and other baby items.
Montgomery divorced Boman and remarried. She told her second husband that she was pregnant. Meanwhile, Boman filed for custody of their children and threatened to expose her imaginary pregnancy.
That was when Montgomery drove to Stinnett’s house, killed her, and took her baby.
At trial, Montgomery’s attorneys failed to provide evidence of the extreme violence that had shaped her life. And they did not ask about this when they called Montgomery’s sister and cousin to the witness stand. Federal prosecutors dismissed the beatings, rapes, and ensuing mental illness as an “abuse excuse.” Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death in 2007.
“In death penalty cases, the death penalty is never mandatory,” Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty, told me. Instead, it is at the discretion of the prosecutor. In Montgomery’s case, that prosecutor was Alberto Gonzales, known for his overzealous pursuit of capital punishment and his support for warrantless wiretapping and torture as George W. Bush’s White House counsel and, later, his attorney general.
Proponents of capital punishment argue that it serves as a deterrent. But there’s no evidence that the threat of execution prevents violence. Babcock also noted women who have committed similar acts and are severely mentally ill do not consider possible punishment. Of the 18 women convicted of similar crimes (in state and federal court), only Montgomery has been sentenced to death.
Since her incarceration, Montgomery has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and borderline personality disorder and prescribed a course of medications to treat her illnesses.
With all appeals exhausted, Montgomery is seeking clemency or a commutation from death to life imprisonment. Her clemency petition was due on November 15, a deadline that a new team of attorneys was racing to meet. On November 12, however, Montgomery’s attorneys said that they had contracted Covid-19 from repeated trips to the prison in Fort Worth, Tex., to prepare Montgomery’s petition. (Because of the severity of their illnesses, I was unable to speak with either attorney.) The Trump administration rejected their request for a reprieve. Babcock and other attorneys affiliated with Cornell have filed a lawsuit asking the federal court for a temporary restraining order against Montgomery’s execution until her attorneys have recovered and can effectively prepare and submit her clemency application.
Despite being very ill, Montgomery’s attorneys filed a placeholder petition, or a petition to extend the deadline for her clemency application. In their petition, they note that Montgomery is only allowed a crayon and a single piece of paper, and that she had to sign the petition authorization with her hands shackled.
The travesty of executing a woman who has been brutalized throughout her life has sparked an outcry. More than 40 current and former prosecutors as well as two state prosecutors who have prosecuted women for similar crimes have signed on to letters supporting her clemency, noting that her crime—while horrific—was the result of severe mental illness caused by decades of extreme abuse and that the death penalty was inappropriate. Another 900 organizations and advocates, including anti-trafficking and anti-violence organizations, also oppose her execution. But Trump, who has repeatedly called for the death penalty for selling drugs and whose administration denied Montgomery’s request for a reprieve, is unlikely to have a change of heart.
Right now, at the federal prison in Fort Worth, Montgomery is under 24-hour watch. Male guards watch her use the toilet, and her underwear is confiscated if she exhibits distress. The ACLU has filed suit, arguing that these conditions reinforce Montgomery’s sexual trauma, exacerbate her mental illness, and thus constitute cruel and unusual punishment. This could result in a stay of execution while the lawsuit winds its way through the courts. If the stay lasts beyond January 20, the Biden administration is not likely to reschedule Montgomery’s execution.
In 1972, after being removed from their abusive home, Montgomery’s older sister, Diane Mattingly, was placed with a foster family, where she was “engulfed in love and self-worth” for the first time.
Mattingly is devastated that her younger sibling suffered decades of extreme abuse, leading her to this tragic breaking point. “My path to healing was hard. But I had people in my life who intervened. She didn’t.”
If she could speak directly to Trump or to the courts, Mattingly said she would beg, “Please don’t take my sister. She was broken by people who were supposed to be her caregivers. She needs someone for once in her life to be on her side.”