Update (January 13, 9:30 a.m.): Lisa Montgomery, 52, was executed early Wednesday morning by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. She is the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953. Her execution commenced after the Supreme Court denied a competency hearing that suggested Montgomery should have never been eligible for the death penalty. The federal government plans to execute two more people this week: Corey Johnson on Thursday and Dustin Higgs on Friday.
Update (January 12, 4:45 p.m.): On Tuesday afternoon, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit denied Lisa Montgomery's execution stay. She is scheduled to die tonight, less than a day after a federal judge in Indiana granted her stay for mental health reasons.
Update (January 12, 9 a.m.): Lisa Montgomery, who was scheduled to be executed today at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, filed a petition against her execution. Her motion to stay has officially been granted, and the execution will not proceed. However, President Trump has three more executions scheduled for this week at Terre Haute. Many continue to plea with Attorney General Rosen to stop all remaining executions this week.
This story was originally published on December 22, 2020.
Next month, Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to be killed by the United States government. After 17 years of no federal executions, the U.S. has recently started carrying them out again — with Brandon Bernard being killed this past month. Montgomery is the only woman on federal death row, and one of only 51 women on death rows across the country. If she is killed, she will be the first woman executed by the federal government since 1953.
But, President Donald Trump has decided to go on something of a killing spree before he leaves office, and chose to move ahead with six executions in his lame-duck period, including Bernard’s. Montgomery has been sentenced to die by lethal injection on January 12, 2021 for the 2004 murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a pregnant woman whom Montgomery strangled, before cutting open her stomach and kidnapping the baby within. The child survived and was found when Montgomery was arrested.
Make no mistake: Montgomery is guilty of this horrific crime. But she was also the victim of horrific crimes herself; and moreover, as the New York Times reports in a recent piece on her: "She was sentenced to death because her trial lawyers, uninformed about gender violence, didn’t seem to understand how to defend her."
From infancy and through adolescence, Montgomery endured horrific domestic abuse from her mother and sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather in addition to other forms of abuse, including forced prostitution. Addled with trauma, Montgomery developed, the Times reports, "bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (c-PTSD), dissociative disorder, psychosis, traumatic brain injury, and likely fetal alcohol syndrome." She was also "born into a family rife with mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression."
These extenuating circumstances could and should have been used by her attorneys to demonstrate that, no matter the severity of her crimes, Montgomery should not be given the death penalty. But, during her jury in her 2007 trial, her attorneys — all men — didn't give the jury insight into this. They also, the Times says, "suggested that her... half brother Tommy Kleiner was the actual killer, despite having his own probation officer as his alibi." Because they failed to defend her properly, Montgomery was sentenced to death.
Recently, Montgomery’s 57-year-old half-sister Diane Mattingly opened up to ELLE about why her sister should not be executed. “Didn’t the jury understand that she is ill? It’s hard to keep track of all the times she has been let down by people she’s supposed to trust. Her mom and her dad. Her school teachers. The police. Social Services. Me. Now her government was failing her, too,” says Mattingly. “My heart goes out to the family of Bobbie Jo, of course it does, but we need to break the chain of evil actions.”
At the root of the issue is the fact that Montgomery lived in precarious, untenable circumstances exacerbated if not caused by extreme poverty. She is not alone in this. According to the census, 34 million people in the U.S. were living in poverty in 2019. Research has shown that poverty makes people more susceptible to mental illness, and puts them more at risk of being incarcerated, among other things. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Poverty may intensify the experience of mental illness. Poverty may also increase the likelihood of the onset of mental illness. At the same time, experiencing mental illness may also increase the chances of living below the poverty line.” Reflecting on Montgomery's circumstances is not an attempt to excuse her, but to understand her, and hopefully prevent other people in similar environments from going down the same path.
Her post-trial lawyers, Kelley Henry, Amy Harwell, and Lisa Nouri, are trying to contextualize Montgomery's actions, and have her sentence commuted. They have waged a petition claiming that Montgomery’s trial “fell far short of minimum standards of fairness” and therefore violated international law. They’ve also argued that the government itself must take accountability and bears culpability for her crime. After all, it failed to protect Montogmery from torture throughout her life. Her lawyers are now attempting to stay her execution and free her. In addition to her lawyers’ petition, thousands of supporters have written their own letters and petitions demanding this execution be stopped.
While the death penalty should be abolished in general, and no one should be killed by the government, no matter how heinous their crime, there are many aspects of Montgomery’s case, specifically, that make it clear that, though she is responsible for her actions, she is not the only one responsible for them. By allowing people to live in poverty, letting hundreds of thousands of people experience houselessness each year, and refusing to provide vital resources to communities in need, the U.S. government essentially condemns poor people to death by default. In the same way that the government shouldn't have the power to execute anyone, it also shouldn’t have the power to leave its people in abject poverty, making them more vulnerable to abuse and harm.
Fighting the death penalty and attempting to abolish it is, of course, a worthwhile endeavor. But we must also hold the government culpable for the abhorrent situations that are at the root of it all. Even more vulnerable than Montgomery are the millions of Black people and people of color who have been incarcerated, and all of the Black people and people of color who are on death row, many of them also victims of poverty and systemic abuse. This is a country where simply being poor is a crime.
One of the only ways to fix this is by preventing people from living in poverty in the first place, and providing real material resources, money, and social services to those who have suffered from its effect. But while those foundational changes are being fought for on a larger scale, injustices will continue on in other ways. It might be too late to save Montgomery — her life hinges on Trump's discretion. But it’s not too late to prevent others from suffering similar fates.