Lisa Montgomery's Sister Recounts Her Life of Abuse Before Death Row

She shared the horrific details with VICE News shortly before Montgomery was scheduled to be executed as part of Trump's final death-penalty push.
Gabrielle Caplan
Brooklyn, US
Trey Strange
Brooklyn, US

Just hours before the only woman on federal death row was to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday evening, a federal judge put a temporary stop to it, citing the need to determine her mental competence.  

It’s the latest turn in the saga of Lisa Montgomery, who would be the first woman executed by the U.S. government in 63 years. Advocates and family members claim that the failures on the part of the government, cops, and social services early in her life contributed to the severe mental illness that led her to murder. 


VICE News talked to her half-sister, Diane Mattingly, who recounted the horrific torture the two sisters suffered at the hands of their own mother and stepfather: rapes, beatings, physical deprivation, surveillance. “If somebody would have intervened way back when she was young, this would have never happened,” says Mattingly. “You wouldn't know Lisa's name.”

In mid-December 2004, Montgomery drove 170 miles from her home in Kansas to northwest Missouri under the guise of adopting a puppy from dog breeder Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was heavily pregnant. Montgomery stabbed Stinnett and kidnapped her baby from the womb, but was immediately apprehended the next day when she presented the child as her own. When the jury sentenced her to death, advocates say, certain details regarding her torturous childhood were hidden from them by Montgomery’s own defense council. 

As of 2015, there had been 16 other cases in the U.S. of matricide-baby-theft; none of the perpetrators of these crimes were sentenced to death, making Montgomery’s sentencing an anomaly. Montgomery's lawyer, Kelley Henry, says that’s because the jury in those cases were aware of the contributing factors. “The prosecutors in those cases understand that those women have mental illnesses and a trauma history, and they took that into consideration when they assessed punishment in those cases,” she said. 

Montgomery’s abuse throughout her childhood and into her adult years was so bad that the social worker Henry hired to evaluate Montgomery told VICE News it was “as extreme as I’d ever seen, in 40 years of private practice and 32 of death penalty work. I can't think of another case where I've had a client who was so extremely tortured.”


Mattingly says she often protected Montgomery from the brunt of the abuse. But in 1972, when Mattingly was removed from their Kansas home by Child Protective Services, Montgomery was left behind. “I couldn't understand what why I was being taken out of the home and Lisa was being left behind, I didn't understand it. I thought they knew about the rape. I thought they knew about the beatings. I thought they knew about the torture that Judy [her mother] was inflicting.” 

Once Montgomery was left alone, the abuse escalated. Montgomery’s stepfather built a room on the back of their isolated trailer where she was repeatedly raped and watched through a cutout window at all times. Years before enduring ongoing sexual abuse from her stepfather, his friends, and the men Montgomery’s mother would bring into the home, Montgomery suffered vicious beatings, would be stripped naked and forced to stand for hours without moving, and have her mouth duct-taped shut if she made noise. Mattingly recalls Montgomery’s first sentence at 18 months as “Don’t spank me, it hurts.” 

Montgomery’s case has served to highlight a larger ongoing national conversation over the execution of the mentally ill. Several states have moved to pass legislation in recent years prohibiting the execution of the severely mentally ill. Most recently Ohio’s House and Senate recently put their stamp of approval on House Bill 136, which prohibits executions of death row inmates who suffered from a serious mental illness at the time they committed the murders. 

Montgomery, 52, had been on death row in the Federal Medical Centre Carswell in Texas, and then was transported to Terre Haute to be executed, before the stay was granted. The federal government is pushing hard to get the stay reversed. But with only days left in the Trump administration, her case could get pushed into President-elect Joe Biden’s term. And he has promised to end capital punishment at the federal level.