It’s now abundantly clear that Donald Trump is soon about to be a president of the past. But he’s still trying to leave an orange skid mark on our lives or, in some cases, our deaths. Take death row inmate, Lisa Montgomery, for instance. She is currently the only woman on federal death row. In 2007, Montgomery was convicted of strangling pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett, cutting out Stinnett’s fetus, and kidnapping the baby, who survived the attack unharmed.
Montgomery’s execution date was recently announced. She currently has a date with the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana on December 8, 2020. Montgomery’s official death date was announced last month, giving her just a few weeks to prepare. Normally, prisoners on federal death row get about four months notice before they meet the executioner. Montgomery’s two public defender lawyers are currently both bedridden with COVID-19. They seek to delay Ms. Montgomery’s execution on those grounds.
If Montgomery is executed next month, she will be the first woman in 70 years to be executed by the feds. Trump probably sees that as a feather in his cap– or, perhaps it’s Attorney General William P. Barr who is so eager to see Montgomery killed by the government. Since July 2020, Barr has reinstated federal executions, which had been on a 17 year hiatus. Consequently, seven federal inmates have been executed since then. Lisa Montgomery would be the ninth federal inmate to be put to death this year. President-Elect Joe Biden has vowed to end the federal death penalty.
I’m not a fan of the death penalty. I won’t say it’s never appropriate– there are some cases in which executions should be done in the name of public safety. For instance, I fully believe that Timothy McVeigh, mastermind of the Oklahoma City Bombing, would have killed again if given the chance. I also believe that the DC Sniper, John Allen Muhammad would have killed again. In their cases, I think the death penalty was justifiable. However, I don’t think most death penalty cases are like that. I mostly think the death penalty should be abolished in the United States, as it has been in all of the most civilized countries around the world. But I especially think it’s wrong in Lisa Montgomery’s situation.
Lisa Montgomery is 52 years old and the mother of four children she had with her stepbrother, whom she married when she was 18 years old. She suffers from extreme mental illness. She had a mental illness when she attacked Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Montgomery told her husband that she was pregnant, but she’d been faking it. In fact, Montgomery, who was 36 years old at the time of the murder, had undergone surgery that rendered her unable to have more children before she’d ever met her husband. So when it came time to produce a baby, she determined the only thing she could do was resort to murder and kidnapping. Of course she was absolutely wrong to do what she did. She definitely belongs in prison. But there are mitigating circumstances in Lisa Montgomery’s case.
Lisa Montgomery has severe mental illness brought on by many years of childhood sexual abuse. Both of Montgomery’s parents were alcoholics, and her mother drank heavily during her pregnancy. Montgomery’s older half sister, Diane Mattingly, a product of an earlier relationship of their father’s, now works as a state employee in Kentucky. She has testified that Lisa Montgomery’s mother was extremely abusive to both girls and would beat them constantly. Mattingly has claimed that Montgomery’s mother would psychologically terrorize the girls, and they got no help from their father, who was in the military and gone for long periods of time. While their father was gone, Montgomery’s mother would bring men home. Sometimes, they would have violent fights in front of the girls. On occasion, the girls would be left with male babysitters who would sometimes rape Mattingly in front of Montgomery.
When Mattingly was about eight years old, her father and Montgomery’s mother separated. Mattingly was removed from the home by child protective services. For some reason, Montgomery was left behind. While Mattingly ended up being placed with loving foster parents who taught her self-worth and helped her recover her dignity, Montgomery was left in a cesspool of violence and depravity. There was no one there to protect her. Diane Mattingly was able to recover from her horrifying childhood because she had nurturing from kind adults who showed her a different way to live. Her sister, Lisa Montgomery, never had that.
After Mattingly left the home, Lisa Montgomery’s mother remarried and had three more children. Her next husband was a violent man who regularly beat the children and psychologically tortured them. He would force them to strip naked and then whip them. The family also moved a lot; by the time Montgomery was a teenager, she’d moved sixteen times. It was hard for her to form connections to other people who could have helped her escape her nightmarish home. But when she did tell people she was being molested– including her cousin, who was a deputy sheriff– no one did anything to help her. In fact, her stepfather used to allow her to be used as payment for services rendered when plumbers or electricians would fix things in the house. When her mother finally divorced her second husband, she told the court that she’d walked in on her husband raping her daughter. She was admonished by the court for not reporting the crime, but no one did anything about the abuse. Her stepfather was never charged. And according to a therapist who worked with Montgomery briefly during her mother’s divorce, Montgomery was left with the idea that it was her fault she’d been repeatedly raped.
Montgomery is an incest survivor who was also a victim of sex trafficking. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, and cerebellar dysfunction. There’s also evidence that Montgomery is genetically predisposed to mental illness, and the abuse she suffered during her childhood made that predisposition much worse than it might have otherwise been. Mental health experts assigned to her case have concluded that Montgomery was suffering from psychosis when she committed her crime. And finally, once Montgomery was appropriately treated for her mental illness, she became deeply remorseful.
Although Lisa Montgomery is clearly responsible for killing Bobbie Jo Stinnett in a truly horrific manner, it’s also clear that she won’t kill again. I would not put her in the same class as someone like Timothy McVeigh or John Allen Muhammad or Ted Bundy. I don’t believe she killed Bobbie Jo Stinnett because she got off on killing people. I believe she was out of her mind. And based on what I’ve read about her history, I certainly can’t blame her for being out of her mind.
I think Lisa Montgomery’s execution date has been settled so quickly because Trump is about to leave office and it’s clear that a lot of Americans are changing their opinions about capital punishment. Some people will always be in favor of taking an eye for an eye, and want to see Lisa Montgomery put to death. Frankly, I think a lot of people enjoy the spectacle of the death penalty. But the larger portion of Americans are finding capital punishment barbaric and repugnant, and wouldn’t have a problem with seeing it go away for good.
Lisa Montgomery may not even know she’s about to die. Her mental state is so poor that she’s not very lucid. She spends her days doing needlepoint while her lawyers fight to try to save her life. She has exhausted her appeals to stay her execution. She’s had a hellish life so far. No, she should not be excused for her crimes, but the circumstances in her case are so absolutely terrible that I think she should be granted the chance to have her sentence commuted to life in prison. It’s not ethical to execute someone as mentally ill as Montgomery is. But then, I don’t think it’s ethical to execute most people on death row. I truly believe it’s a punishment that should be reserved for the most extreme cases that involve many people’s deaths.
Unfortunately, I think it’s likely that Ms. Montgomery will be put to death next month. She’s the victim of an administration that doesn’t care about anyone, but especially people like her. Lisa Montgomery’s life has been incredibly tragic and there was no one there to protect her when she needed it the most. The system failed her spectacularly, and now it will be responsible for her death.