The push by the US federal government to execute Lisa Montgomery before Trump leaves office on 20 January 2021 has caused outrage even among people who support capital punishment in principle. The furore is not purely about the death penalty itself, but about the morality of using it to punish a woman suffering from severe mental illness resulting from the most heinous history of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
In the early hours of 13 January 2021, following a Supreme Court ruling to overturn the stay of execution granted by a lower court, the federal government put Lisa Montgomery to death for the murder of 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett. She was only the fourth woman to face federal execution in the US, and the first in 67 years. Lisa Montgomery’s case has drawn international attention, particularly in recent weeks, owing to the horrific crime she committed and the savage brutality of the abuse she suffered from a young age.
Lisa Montgomery strangled Bobbie Jo Stinnett — eight months pregnant at the time — and cut Stinnett’s unborn baby daughter out of her womb, kidnapping the infant to pass off as her own. Fetal abduction is well-documented, even in recent history. Ten cases were recorded in the US between 2005 and 2015. Lisa was not the only woman imprisoned in the US for killing a pregnant mother and kidnapping her baby. Far from it. She was the only one who faced the death penalty for it.
How Lisa came to be a murderer appears to be tied up with her history of abuse. The only thing more alarming than what she suffered is just how many opportunities there were to put an end to it, to rescue her as her sister was rescued. Social services took Montgomery’s half-sister, Diane Mattingly, after a male friend of the girls’ mother raped the child. Social services did not take Lisa. Diane was so upset at leaving Lisa behind that she became hysterical and vomited all over the car. Her fear for her sister’s safety was not misplaced.
Lisa Montgomery’s stepfather, Jack Kleiner, started raping Lisa. He would kick, punch, strangle and rape her. He invited his friends to do the same. Lisa Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, would pimp Lisa to men in exchange for money and services. Men gang raped Lisa Montgomery throughout her teenage years. Men would beat her for “doing it wrong” and urinate on her when they were finished.
Lisa’s school performance dropped so much she was put into special education classes, yet her teachers did not report the abuse they suspected was the cause of her academic difficulties and growing tendency to be completely dissociated. She told her cousin, a deputy sheriff, what was being done to her. The cousin believed her stories, but he failed to report it or open an investigation. During Judy and Jack’s divorce proceedings, Lisa Montgomery testified to the abuse in open court. A judge heard it. Judy confirmed it. Still, nothing happened.
At 18, Lisa married her stepbrother, Carl Boman, who would routinely film himself raping and sexually torturing her. She had four children by him. Social services knew the family because of Lisa Montgomery’s struggle to care for them and her progressive mental health issues.
During Lisa Montgomery’s trial for the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, Montgomery’s defense team presented almost none of this history.
Psychiatric and other medical professionals diagnosed Lisa Montgomery with temporal lobe epilepsy, dissociative disorder, bipolar disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (a type of PTSD developed by people who have suffered sustained and overwhelming threat to their physical safety, such as child soldiers and war refugees). A variety of MRIs and PET scans revealed a physical picture consistent with these diagnoses and also showed clear evidence of serious brain damage, with some of which she was probably born due to her mother’s alcoholism, but much of which was most likely due to the violence of the abuse she suffered.
Her defense team — Frederick Duchardt, John O’Connor, and David Owen — did not present this in mitigation.
They left unchallenged the prosecution’s attack on her character: that she didn’t cook, didn’t clean herself, her house, or her children, didn’t know how to care for them. The defense kept the narrative vague, and rather than presenting expert testimony about the after effects of sexual abuse, they read a poem about rape in their closing arguments. They even left largely unchallenged one expert witness for the prosecution who claimed that Lisa consented to her stepfather’s violent sexual abuse “at least to some extent.” The prosecution dismissed Montgomery’s suffering as the “abuse excuse” in closing arguments.
It took the jury less than five hours to find her guilty of premeditated murder.
Lisa Montgomery’s defense team declined to use mitigation experts at closing arguments, though at least four such experts had been attached to the legal team at some point. The use of these experts in capital trials is almost a foregone conclusion. The death penalty is an irreversible punishment. The court has a legal and moral obligation to explore any potentially mitigating factors with particular care. “Laughable,” was how Lisa Montgomery’s attorney, Frederick Duchardt, described the very idea of a mitigation specialist. The jury recommended death. The judge imposed the death sentence.
Lisa Montgomery’s post-conviction legal team, led by Kelley Henry, by all accounts did yeoman’s work.
Lisa Montgomery is dead, nonetheless: killed by lethal injection at 1:31am on the 13th of January, 2021. The Supreme Court reversed two decisions of the federal appeals court and denied two additional motions for postponement in order for the execution to go ahead without a mental competency hearing or any further option to appeal.
“The government,” said Henry in a statement following the execution, “stopped at nothing in its zeal to kill this damaged and delusional woman.”
“Lisa Montgomery’s execution was far from justice,” Henry also said in the statement. “Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”
A great many things went horrifically wrong in the course of these events. Killing Lisa Montgomery hasn’t fixed any of them.
Lisa Montgomery’s execution was not justice. It did not make the world better, restore it to order, or net off the debt of sin. Lisa Montgomery is dead. The world yet living clings to the malice and cruelty, disdain and apathy Lisa Montgomery suffered in life.