A coalition of prosecutors, domestic violence groups, anti-trafficking organizations, child advocates and mental health experts sent a series of letters to President Donald Trump on Wednesday urging him to stop the execution of Lisa Montgomery, a mentally ill woman who suffered extreme childhood abuse, including incest, physical violence and sex trafficking by her own parents.
In 2004, Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, killed Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was pregnant, and abducted her baby. Montgomery is scheduled to be executed by the federal government on Dec. 8. If the execution occurs, she will be the first woman to be executed by the U.S. in nearly 70 years. (At the state level, there are 53 women on death row. Sixteen women have been executed by state governments since 1976, the latest of whom was Kelly Gissendaner in 2015.)
The letters ― there are six total, with over a thousand co-signers between them ― ask Trump to commute her sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on account of her significant mental illness and history of abuse. President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office a little over a month after Montgomery is scheduled to die, has pledged to end the federal death penalty.
According to sworn statements by family members, Montgomery was a victim of severe physical and sexual abuse as a child. Her stepfather began to molest her around the age of 11 and then began raping her, which her mother attested to witnessing in court at the time. As a teen, Montgomery confided in a cousin who worked in law enforcement that her parents were allowing other men to rape her as payment for work done around the house.
Her lawyer, Amy Harwell, a federal public defender in Tennessee, said the prolonged childhood trauma Montgomery experienced exacerbated a genetic predisposition to mental illness. These days, Montgomery has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires a regimen of psychotropic drugs to function.
“Mrs. Montgomery was psychotic at the time of the crime,” Harwell told HuffPost previously. “She has always accepted responsibility. This is someone who was deeply remorseful, once she became appropriately medicated and had full contact with reality, although that is a situation that waxes and wanes.”
Among the letters sent to Trump pleading for Montgomery’s life was one penned by two prosecutors who handled similar cases involving attacks on pregnant women.
In 1987, 20-year-old Darci Pierce, who had spent months faking a pregnancy, murdered Cindy Ray and cut out her baby, who survived. In a similar case in 2015, Dynel Lane attacked Michelle Wilkins, who was 7 months pregnant, and removed her fetus. In that case, the mother survived but the baby did not.
Both women received long prison sentences but were spared the death penalty.
“We know from first-hand experience that these crimes are inevitably the product of serious mental illness,” wrote Harry Zimmerman, a former deputy district attorney in New Mexico who prosecuted Pierce, and Stanley Garnett, a former district attorney in Colorado who prosecuted Lane. “Women who commit such crimes also are likely to have been victimized themselves. These are important factors that make death sentences inappropriate.”
They added that they were particularly troubled by the fact that Montgomery accepted responsibility for her crime and offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life-without-parole sentence.
“Like the cases of Dynel Lane and Darci Pierce, Lisa Montgomery’s case does not warrant the death penalty,” they wrote. “Given the overwhelming evidence of her mental illness and trauma history along with the particularly traumatic nature of this type of crime for the victim’s family, the federal prosecutors should have exercised their discretion to accept Ms. Montgomery’s plea offer.”
A separate letter signed by a group of 800 organizations and individuals working against violence against women urged Trump to grant clemency to Montgomery.
“Lisa’s abuse doesn’t excuse her crime. But it does provide an explanation for how she came to commit that crime, a context for trying to understand what otherwise might seem incomprehensible,” they wrote. “A victim of trauma with serious mental health issues, including dissociative disorder directly linked to her experiences of sexual violence, Lisa’s mental illness is inextricable from the crime she committed.”
She has always accepted responsibility. This is someone who was deeply remorseful, once she became appropriately medicated and had full contact with reality, although that is a situation that waxes and wanes. Amy Harwell, one of Montgomery's lawyers.
They noted that prosecutors in Montgomery’s case dismissed her documented history of victimization as “the abuse excuse” and deployed gendered stereotypes to discredit her in front of the jury.
“They presented Lisa as a bad mother who didn’t cook or clean and kept a filthy home. The failure to appear as a perfect model of womanhood — pretty, clean, docile, obedient, and well-mannered — is often used to undermine the credibility of victims of violence,” they wrote. “Few women can live up to this image of the sanitized victim. Lisa certainly didn’t, and as a result, her history of victimization was dismissed and minimized, instead of providing the crucial context for understanding her crime.”
Montgomery was failed by every adult in her life who should have protected her, wrote a group of 40 child advocates in another letter.
“As child and family advocates, we step in for children who have been abused, victimized, and/or abandoned by their parents or caregivers. Tragically, no one stepped in to save Lisa,” they wrote. “We know from our work with children that being unable to escape a cycle of abuse exacts a terrible mental toll. This was sadly true for Lisa. Her crime reflected the desperation, shame, and hopelessness that many victims of extreme child abuse feel.”
A letter from three mental health organizations asked the president to consider the direct link between Montgomery’s severe mental illness and her crime. They noted that some state legislatures are now considering bills that would exempt individuals with serious mental illness from the death penalty.
“These states’ lawmakers acknowledge that our evolving standards of decency can no longer tolerate executing individuals with severe mental illness, just as we no longer execute juvenile offenders or individuals with intellectual disability in recognition of their reduced moral culpability,” they wrote. “We know the decision whether to commute a death sentence is difficult, but in Lisa Montgomery’s case, it is the right one.”
Montgomery has exhausted all attempts to appeal her conviction and death sentence, although her attorneys are exploring possible litigation.
“At this point, it is up to President Trump,” Harwell, Montgomery’s lawyer, said. “He has the power to grant her clemency. Mrs. Montgomery has always been willing to accept life without possibility of parole.”