First federal execution of female inmate in nearly 70 years awaits court decisions

Warning: This story contains descriptions of violence that may be disturbing to some.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday night helped clear the path for the execution of Lisa Montgomery, who could become the first woman to be executed by the federal government in 67 years. The decision comes after Judge James Hanlon of the Southern District of Indiana had granted a stay of execution late Monday to determine if Montgomery was competent to be executed under the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 in favor of Montgomery’s execution, ending a stay on her execution put in place by a D.C. Circuit court. The stay granted by Hanlon on Monday was also vacated by an appeals court in the 7th Circuit. 

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has issued its own stay of execution, and that was still in place late Tuesday.

Montgomery, 52, was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Tuesday in Terre Haute, Indiana, after being convicted in 2007 of federal kidnapping resulting in death. She is the only woman currently on death row.

“Mrs. Montgomery has brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers,” her attorney Kelley Henry said in a statement after the stay was announced.

“The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of people like Mrs. Montgomery who, due to their severe mental illness or brain damage, do not understand the basis for their executions.”

Lisa Montgomery
Lisa Montgomery

Handout via AP

In 2004, Montgomery fatally strangled 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant at the time. As Stinnett lay dying, Montgomery took a kitchen knife and cut the baby out of her abdomen.

Montgomery arrived at Stinnett’s home in Skidmore, Missouri, under the guise of adopting a dog before overpowering Stinnett and strangling her with a rope. She was arrested the following day after pretending the baby was her own.

Her attorneys filed a petition last Friday to stop the execution citing she has “brain damage, severe mental illness, and suffered a lifetime of sexual torture.”

From the age of 11, Montgomery endured sexual torture at the hands of her stepfather, her legal team said. As a young teenager, they said she was raped in a designated rape room while her stepfather beat her head against concrete, resulting in long term brain damage.

Montgomery’s mother allowed men to gang-rape her daughter in exchange for money or home repairs, her lawyers said. After the gang rapes, the men “urinated on her like she was trash,” according to the petition.

“From a very young age and continuing into the present day, Mrs. Montgomery has been disconnected from her physical being and out of touch with reality,” states the petition. “Presently (Mrs. Montgomery’s) mental condition results in her inability rationally to understand she will be executed, why she will be executed, or even where she is.”

Her sister, Diane Mattingly, agrees that Montgomery should spend the rest of her life in prison for the heinous crime, but does not believe she should face capital punishment. “I want people to understand the torture that my sister endured her whole life, and the people that had let her down over and over again,” Mattingly said Monday on CBSN.

Mattingly was adopted by a foster family while Montgomery was left with their abusive parents. She said she felt guilty for never telling someone what happened in their Oklahoma trailer. But she said there were others who knew what the young girls endured, from a child doctor to a police officer, and did nothing.

“She is broken. She broke … but we’re just asking that for once somebody stands up for her,” said Mattingly.

Mattingly is asking for empathy from a society she believes let her sister down. She said her heart goes out to the family of Bobbie Jo, “her family members, her friends, the community — I know that they are hurting. I’m so sorry that this happened to you.”

Stinnett’s infant daughter, Victoria Jo, is now 16 and living with her father Zeb Stinnett, according to The Associated Press. She has never spoken out about the tragedy.

Montgomery’s attorneys previously filed for executive clemency in December of last year.

In nearly a century, there have been 47 federal executions. Thirteen will have occurred in the last year if all the scheduled executions are carried out.

Former Attorney General William Barr ended the 17-year moratorium on capital punishment last summer. After the election, Barr announced five executions to take place prior to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who is an opponent of the death penalty.

Two other executions were halted Tuesday as the federal death row inmates recover from COVID-19. The U.S. District Court for D.C. ruled that executing Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs while they recover from the virus would violate their constitutional rights.

Johnson, who is convicted on seven counts of murder, was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on January 14. Dustin John Higgs, convicted of kidnapping and murder, was scheduled to be executed the following day. Both men had tested positive for coronavirus last month.

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