Lisa Montgomery, a federal prisoner, is now slated to be executed on Jan. 12. She is the only woman on federal death row. She would be the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years.
Montgomery’s case presents a picture of contrasting narratives. There is the story of the atrocious crime she committed and then there is the story of the horribly abused and traumatized life she lived prior to her crime. How you see this case depends on what facts you choose to look at. In choosing to execute Montgomery, the federal government is ignoring and minimizing both the trauma she experienced and her mental illness.
On Dec. 17, 2004, the authorities arrested Montgomery for the murder by strangulation of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Stinnett was pregnant at the time and Montgomery used a kitchen knife to carve her abdomen and cut out the baby, whom she planned to claim as her own. There is no denying the gruesomeness of the crime.
However, Montgomery was psychotic at the time. She had been subjected to a coerced sterilization by her stepbrother, whom she had married at her mother’s instigation. After she murdered Stinnett she actually took the baby home and pretended the baby was her child. On Oct. 22, 2007, a jury convicted her, and Montgomery received the death sentence.
It is impossible to understand this horrific crime without understanding the circumstances of Montgomery’s life.
Montgomery’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, drank throughout her pregnancy and Lisa was born with organic brain damage. Her father deserted the family and failed to be much of a parental presence.
What followed is a long history of extreme abuse and neglect. Shaughnessy was cruel and violent to Lisa and her sisters. Lisa survived child abuse, domestic violence, incest, multiple rapes, and child sex trafficking.
As a little girl, Lisa’s mother beat her and her sisters with brooms, belts, cords, and hangers. She taped Lisa’s mouth shut with duct tape when she did not want to hear Lisa speaking. Her mother killed the family dog in front of Lisa and her sisters to punish them. She smashed the dog’s head in with a shovel until it died.
Lisa’s older sister, Diane, who was four years older than Lisa, has written about their mother. When Diane was a small child, her mother would force her to strip naked and lock her out of the house. She ordered Diane to wait outside in the freezing cold. When Diane was 8, one of her mother’s male friends began raping her. Social workers removed Diane but for reasons that make no sense, left Lisa there.
In this period, the mother married a man named Jack Kleiner. He punched, kicked, and choked his children, including Lisa. He started sexually molesting Lisa around age 11. He raped her regularly for years. He told Lisa he would kill her whole family if she told anyone.
When Lisa turned 15, her mother started to invite men to the house to have sex with Lisa in exchange for money and services. Her mother told her she had to “pay” for her room and the new indoor plumbing by submitting to the sexual torture of gang rape. The men raped her orally, vaginally, and anally one after the other.
No one intervened to help Lisa during her many years of being brutally abused even though many knew what was happening to her. School administrators, teachers, police, social services, judges, and family members did nothing. She had told her cousin, Donald Kidwell, a police officer, about the gang rapes that her mother instigated. She cried and shook while describing the abuse. Kidwell now says: “I live with regret for not speaking up about what happened to Lisa. I wonder if I had if all this could have been prevented.”
Lisa has been diagnosed with multiple mental and neurological disorders, including bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. The sexual torture caused a dissociative disorder and complex PTSD. Despite a regimen of anti-psychotic medications, Lisa still panics and often breaks out in hives if she is in a room alone with a man.
Dr. Katharine Porterfield, an expert on torture and trauma, testified that the impact of Lisa’s sexual abuse was “massive” and that her disorder was one of the most severe cases of dissociation she had ever seen.
In spite of this history, prosecutors dismissed the evidence of Montgomery’s sexual exploitation and torture as the “abuse excuse.” They faulted her mothering skills and, overlooking her obvious poverty, told the jury she lived in a “filthy home.” Her own lawyers failed to explain to the jury why repeated rape, torture, and child sexual trafficking mattered.
Montgomery has accepted full responsibility for her crime and does express remorse.
Really the only thing at issue in this case is the imposition of the death penalty as opposed to life in prison.
How do you decide the culpability of someone who was psychotic and was victimized for years? What about the fact the state never protected Montgomery against rape and unspeakable cruelty? Or the fact that as a young person she never received any care for her mental illness.
To impose the death penalty under these circumstances is not justice – it is ignorant and cruel. It ignores too much.
Forty current and former prosecutors have weighed in and have asked President Donald Trump to grant Lisa Montgomery clemency. A coalition of United Nations human rights experts has also requested clemency for Montgomery, saying she received inadequate legal assistance and pointing out that her abuse history and mental health were not adequately considered during her trial.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration appears to be in some kind of a race to execute federal prisoners before the end of Trump’s term in January. Montgomery is one of five federal prisoners Trump and Attorney General William Barr plan to kill before Jan. 20. The Trump administration has already executed eight people in the last five months.
The Trump administration has expanded the allowed methods to carry out execution of federal prisoners. In addition to lethal injection, they are bringing back death by firing squad, electrocution, and poison gas. Prior to this year, the federal government had not executed anyone since 2003. The last time there was an execution during a lame-duck presidency was 1889 during the outgoing administration of Grover Cleveland.
Sadly, as exemplified by the Lisa Montgomery case, we have departed from the idea that executions should be reserved for “the worst of the worst.” At a time when pardons are much discussed, I have seen little comment on the president’s clemency power under the Constitution. He has that power. As Lisa’s sister Diane has said, sparing her sister’s life “can break the chain of evil actions.”
(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)