U.S. To Execute Only Woman On Federal Death Row 8 Days Before Biden Inauguration

The Trump administration is moving ahead with the execution of Lisa Montgomery, a mentally ill victim of sex trafficking. Joe Biden opposes the death penalty.
Lisa Montgomery, a federal prison inmate scheduled for execution on Jan. 12, 2021, poses at the Federal Medical Center Fort Worth in an undated photograph, courtesy of her lawyers.
Lisa Montgomery, a federal prison inmate scheduled for execution on Jan. 12, 2021, poses at the Federal Medical Center Fort Worth in an undated photograph, courtesy of her lawyers.

Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, is set to be executed on Jan. 12, just days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to end the death penalty.

Montgomery was initially scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 8. However, both her attorneys contracted the coronavirus after visiting her in prison and have been too sick to work on her case.

A federal judge has delayed the execution so that Montgomery’s lawyers have more time to prepare her clemency application. They plan to ask President Donald Trump to commute her sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole. If Montgomery’s execution goes forward, she will be the first female federal inmate to be executed in almost 70 years.

Montgomery was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of a pregnant woman, Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Montgomery strangled the woman and cut open her abdomen to remove her 8-month-old fetus. The baby survived.

Montgomery’s lawyers say that her crime was committed in the midst of a psychotic episode, brought on after suffering years of physical and sexual abuse. A survivor of incest and sex trafficking, she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mental health experts who have examined her believe that her history of childhood trauma exacerbated a genetic predisposition to mental illness that ran in her family.

“It is difficult to grasp the extremity of the horrors Lisa suffered from her earliest childhood, including being raped by her stepfather, handed off to his friends for their use, sold to groups of adult men by her own mother and repeatedly gang raped, and relentlessly beaten and neglected,” said Sandra L. Babcock, clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, and one of Montgomery’s lawyers.

She has taken the lead in helping to delay the execution after both of Montgomery’s lead attorneys — assistant federal public defenders Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell — contracted the coronavirus. Both lawyers made multiple trips to the women’s prison in Texas where Montgomery is imprisoned before they fell ill. According to a doctor who evaluated their health, both have been exhibiting severe symptoms of COVID-19.

Once Montgomery’s attorneys recover, they say they will continue working on a clemency petition on her behalf. It is expected to be filed no later than Dec. 24.

Montgomery is currently being held in isolation at Federal Medical Center, Carswell, a women’s medical prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Since her execution was set, she has been held under cruel and harsh conditions that are especially traumatizing in light of her history of sexual abuse, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit challenging the conditions.

Montgomery has taken full responsibility for the crime, Babcock said in a statement. No other woman has been executed for a similar crime, as most prosecutors have recognized that it is the product of trauma and mental illness, she added.

“Despite Lisa’s deteriorating mental health and a much deeper understanding of the trauma she endured, the government plans to kill her,” she said. “Executing Lisa Montgomery would be yet another injustice inflicted on a woman who has known a lifetime of mistreatment.”

Montgomery is one of five federal inmates scheduled to be put to death by the Trump administration in the weeks before Biden takes office. They include Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10, Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11, Cory Johnson on Jan. 14 and Dustin Higgs on Jan. 15.

In a statement, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, called for the immediate suspension of the scheduled executions, citing the health risks posed by the coronavirus.

“The fact that the federal government has continued to move forward with executions and even set new dates — at a moment when COVID-19 is so out of control that Lisa Montgomery’s lawyers could not even visit her without contracting it — is unconscionable,” she said. “Each federal execution involves gathering of hundreds of people and risks becoming a super-spreader event.”

When reached for comment, Biden spokesperson TJ Ducklo said, “The President-Elect opposes the death penalty, now and in the future, and as president will work to end its use.”

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