Anti-trafficking groups decry woman’s execution
Compassion | Lisa Montgomery committed—and was the victim of—heinous crime
by Mary Jackson
Posted 1/20/21, 04:42 pm
In the waning days of the Trump administration, the federal government executed a female convict for the first time in nearly seven decades. Her sentence invigorated public debate over the death penalty and raised questions about the role of a suspect’s past trauma in criminal sentencing.
Lisa Montgomery, 52, was convicted in 2008 of strangling 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett of Missouri, who was eight months pregnant, and cutting the premature baby out of its mother’s womb. The baby girl lived and turned 16 on Dec. 16.
Montgomery’s lawyers, family, and supporters claimed she was not mentally capable of understanding her sentence, having endured physical and sexual torture at the hands of adults for most of her childhood. Supporters called her original legal defense inadequate, pointing out that defense attorneys initially argued her brother committed the murder even though he had an alibi. That approach was ultimately dropped in favor of an insanity defense. Her lawyers argued she had pseudocyesis, a mental condition in which persons believe they are pregnant even though they aren’t. After the murder, Montgomery tried to pass off Stinnett’s baby as her own. The jury found her guilty and recommended a death sentence.
The BBC interviewed the local sheriff and other residents of the northwestern Missouri town of Skidmore, where the murder took place. They described a crime so horrific and coldly calculated that no penalty except death would suffice. But more than 800 women’s and anti-trafficking groups and advocates entreated former President Donald Trump to commute Montgomery’s sentence.
“Those of us who work in the anti-violence field or have experienced abuse know that victims of violence are complex, that someone can both use even horrific violence and nonetheless be a victim of serious trauma,” the letter said. “While [Montgomery’s] experiences of victimization and mental illness do not excuse her crime, they do help to explain what otherwise seems unimaginable.” Kelley Henry, Montgomery’s longtime attorney, described her as a devout Christian who “often became trapped in the prison of her mind.”
On Jan. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to clear the way for Montgomery’s execution to move forward after denying her request for a postponement and vacating a stay issued by a federal appeals court questioning her mental competency at the time of death. Neither the court’s conservative majority nor the three dissenting liberal justices published opinions explaining the reasoning behind their decisions. The White House did not respond to Montgomery’s request for clemency before her execution on Jan. 13, her lawyers said.
Montgomery declined to give any final words before she died by lethal injection. She was the 11th prisoner executed at a Terre Haute, Ind., federal prison complex since July, when Trump, a supporter of the death penalty, resumed federal executions following a 17-year hiatus.
Religious groups have long debated the morality of capital punishment, which the Bible assigns as a consequence for certain sins. In a summary of Scriptural positions on capital punishment, Dan Van Ness, executive director of Prison Fellowship’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation, underscored how difficult it is to apply such laws fairly. In a 2013 WORLD Magazine cover story and series of columns, editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky talked with death row convicts and examined Biblical texts and various arguments for and against the death penalty, considering whether a life spent in prison is adequate punishment in light of Biblical teaching. His conclusion? The Bible sets a very high bar for capital punishment, and the American legal system today rarely reaches it.
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Mary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area. Follow her on Twitter @mbjackson77.