The only woman on federal death row, Lisa Montgomery, is asking outgoing President Donald Trump to commute her sentence to life without possibility of parole.
She is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 12, one of three people the federal government plans to put to death during Trump’s final week in office. The two others condemned to die ― Dustin Higgs and Corey Johnson ― both were recently diagnosed with COVID-19.
Montgomery was sentenced for the 2004 murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Montgomery strangled Stinnett, who was pregnant, and cut out her 8-month-old fetus. She pretended the baby girl was hers before her arrest.
In a clemency petition filed on Dec. 24 and released to the public on Tuesday, Montgomery’s lawyers urged Trump to spare her life, citing her severe mental illness, and the extreme sexual and physical abuse she experienced as a child and teen.
“Broken before she was born, Lisa Montgomery’s life was filled with torture, terror, failure, and betrayal,” her lawyers wrote. “Had just one person intervened, all of this could have been avoided. But they did not. And so now you are faced with the awesome responsibility of deciding whether Lisa Montgomery lives or dies.”
A MoveOn petition imploring Trump to stop Montgomery’s execution had over 140,000 signatures.
According to sworn statements by family, Montgomery was physically and sexually abused from a young age. Her stepfather began molesting her when she was 11 and raping her a few years later. She told a cousin at the time that her parents allowed other men to rape her in exchange for money.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Kelley Henry, one of Montgomery’s lawyers, showed a photo of a trailer on an isolated tract of land in Oklahoma where Montgomery was repeatedly raped by her stepfather and others.
“What happens to Lisa is worse than a horror movie,” Henry said. “Lisa experienced unspeakable torture. It’s not abuse, it’s torture. We know from science that that torture turned to brain damage.”
Mental health experts who have examined Montgomery believe that she began to dissociate with reality as a child in order to survive the sexual violence. As Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist at the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, told HuffPost earlier, children facing traumatic events may dissociate from their feelings to protect themselves from experiencing what is happening.
“Lisa Montgomery developed into ... a person who had profound disconnection from her body, from her mind, from her experience,” Porterfield said. “Those were disconnections that were tragic in their consequences. But they were what we come to understand as neuro-physiological adaptations to survive being constantly under assault.”
Montgomery’s lawyers say she was psychotic at the time of the crime.
Montgomery has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Since her arrest, she has been under constant psychiatric care. She is currently held in Federal Medical Center Carswell, a prison for women with special medical or mental health needs, but will be transferred to Federal Correctional Complex Terre Haute ― the prison where federal executions occur ― prior to her execution. The Terre Haute facility, in Indiana, is the site of a rampant COVID-19 outbreak.
The crime that Montgomery committed, sometimes called fetal abduction, is extremely rare. There have been only 16 cases in the U.S. in the past 35 years, according to research by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.
Women who commit such acts often have a documented history of mental illness and were victimized in the past. Montgomery is the only woman in the U.S. condemned to die for the act.
On Tuesday’s call, Diane Mattingly, Montgomery’s half-sister, described the omnipresent violence while they were growing up and said she tried to protect Montgomery. Mattingly was later removed from the home by child protective services and put into foster care.
“We started out, both, in a horrific situation,” she said. “I went into a place where I was loved and cared for. ... Lisa did not. And she broke. She literally broke.”
Henry, Montgomery’s lawyer, stressed that the defense team was not trying to offer an excuse for Montgomery’s behavior or to minimize the pain she caused. Rather, they were asking Trump to consider whether life in prison was enough of a punishment for a woman with severe mental illness who had already endured a life of pain and suffering.
“Society failed Lisa, and by extension, failed the victim in this case,” Henry said.
Montgomery’s execution date originally was scheduled for Dec. 8. After her two lead attorneys, Henry and co-counsel Amy Harwell, contracted COVID-19 following a visit with her in prison and were unable to work, a district court granted a stay-of-execution order to give them time to recover and prepare her clemency petition.
The government rescheduled Montgomery’s execution for Jan. 12. On Christmas Eve, a federal judge stayed the execution again, ruling that the Bureau of Prisons acted illegally in resetting her execution date while the stay-of-execution order was in effect.
The government appealed and a three-judge panel reversed the district court, allowing the government to proceed with Montgomery’s execution on Jan. 12. Montgomery’s attorneys then appealed to the full Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which denied the request to reinstate the stay.
If Montgomery’s execution goes forward, she will be the first woman put to death by the federal government in nearly 70 years.