COVID Delayed the First Federal Execution of a Woman in 70 Years

Two of Lisa Montgomery's lawyers have the virus.
November 20, 2020, 8:41pm
Undated photo showing Lisa M. Montgomery.
Undated photo showing Lisa M. Montgomery. (AP Photo/Maryville Daily Forum)

Lisa Montgomery, a woman whose life has been marred by years of sexual abuse and mental illness, has been serving a life sentence in federal prison since murdering a pregnant woman more than 15 years ago.

Now, the only obstacle preventing her from becoming the first woman executed by the U.S. government in 70 years is her lawyers’ COVID diagnosis. 

As the federal government attempts to rush through as many executions as possible before President Donald Trump leaves office, Montgomery’s attorneys, Amy Harwell and Kelley Henry, say their client’s life should be spared. They argue she should serve out the remainder of her life sentence because of sexual abuse she suffered from her stepfather, stepbrother, and mother, and her subsequent mental illness.

In August, the Department of Justice denied Montgomery’s first appeal for clemency and set her execution date for December 8, an unprecedented amount of time. But now, thanks in part to a severe case of COVID-19 both attorneys contracted while visiting their client in Texas, a judge has decided that Montgomery’s legal team has until December 24 to argue for mercy once more.

Born in 1968, Lisa Montgomery grew up in a troubled and abusive household in Kansas. She was born with brain damage after her mother drank heavily during her pregnancy, according to news outlet The 19th. As a child, Montgomery was sexually abused by her stepfather and stepbrother, who she was later pressured into marrying. Montgomery was also prostituted by her mother. She has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as dissociative disorders as a result of her upbringing, according to the judge’s order. She also suffers from bipolar disorder and depression.

In December 2004, Montgomery got into a heated argument with her stepbrother and ex-husband over custody of their two kids. He told her he would use a lie she told about being pregnant to help his case. Scared of losing her children over the lie, according to her sister’s account of the  crime, Montgomery went to the house of 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a pregnant woman she had befriended, strangled her to death, and used a kitchen knife to cut the woman’s 8-month-old fetus out of her womb. Montgomery then claimed the child as her own.  

Police discovered the child and Montgomery at her home the next day, and she was arrested, according to the New York Times. She would later confess to the murder, was found guilty, and sentenced to death in October 2007, according to the Department of Justice. She’s the only woman placed on federal death row ever since. 

Montgomery’s lawyers argued that the DOJ’s decision to deny her first appeal for clemency was made under exceptional circumstances: legal proceedings impacted by an ongoing pandemic and an uncharacteristically quick decision made by the DOJ regarding her appeal despite an exceptionally strong case, according to organizations like the Death Penalty Information Center.

After a second request for more time to file an appeal, a federal judge ruled in favor of Montgomery on Thursday, staying her execution by lethal injection to no earlier than Jan. 1, according to the judge’s order.

“If the execution proceeds as scheduled on December 8, 2020, Plaintiff will lose her statutory right to meaningful representation by counsel in the clemency process and would be deprived of meaningful access to the ‘fail-safe’ of the criminal justice system,” the judge wrote in the court order Thursday, referring to her lawyers contracting COVID. 

Sandra Babcock, a third attorney representing Montgomery, says the delay has given her client a shot at stopping the execution altogether.

“The district court’s ruling gives Lisa Montgomery a meaningful opportunity to prepare and present a clemency application after her attorneys recover from COVID-19,” Babcock told VICE News. “Mrs. Montgomery’s case presents compelling grounds for clemency, including her history as a victim of gang rape, incest, and child sex trafficking, as well as her severe mental illness.”

The Department of Justice had already been under fire by Montgomery’s legal team and death penalty experts for setting an execution date just 74 days after denying her clemency. 

“It is a period of time that is unprecedented in the modern era of United States capital punishment,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told VICE News. “This exceedingly short period of time is something more akin to what you’d expect to see in the 1920s or 1930s, and that would be under normal circumstances.”

Dunham added that Montgomery’s request for clemency was “one of the strongest cases for staying an execution because of the impossibility of having any meaningful clemency review.”

Since her execution date was set last month, Montgomery has been on suicide watch, according to Moss’s order. As a result, attorneys Harwell and Henry have argued that she is not able to work on her appeals independently because of her mental state.  

Montgomery was set to be the eighth person executed by the federal government since Attorney General William Barr and the Trump administration reinstated the use of the federal death penalty last July. She was to be injected with the drug pentobarbital, according to the Washington Post.

The death penalty is likely to be put on hold again once President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. If the Trump administration manages to push it through, Montgomery will be the first woman executed by the federal government since 1953.