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U.S. executes Lisa Montgomery, first woman put to death in federal system since 1953

Montgomery was convicted of strangling a Missouri woman in 2004 and taking her unborn baby. Her lawyers argue that she had severe mental illness.
Image: Death penalty protest
A woman holds a sign in Peoples Park to protest against the death penalty and a wave of executions at the Terre Haute federal prison during the last months of Donald Trump's presidency, in Bloomington, Ind., on Dec. 4, 2020.Jeremy Hogan / Sipa USA via AP file

Lisa Montgomery, a convicted killer who strangled a pregnant woman in 2004 and then cut the unborn baby from her womb, was executed in a federal prison in Indiana early Wednesday. She was the first woman executed in the federal system in nearly seven decades.

Montgomery, 52, was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m. Wednesday after receiving a lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said.

Earlier Wednesday, the Supreme Court lifted an appeals court stay that had blocked the execution, and it denied a request for a stay filed by Montgomery's attorneys that raised mental illness concerns.

"The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight," Kelley Henry, an attorney for Montgomery, said in a statement.

Henry has said that Montgomery suffered from severe mental illness that was "exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers," and her lawyers sought a chance to prove her incompetence.

The execution comes in the waning days of the Trump administration, which in 2019 announced plans to carry out the first federal executions in 17 years. President-elect Joe Biden has suggested he would put a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

Image: Lisa Montgomery
Lisa Montgomery.Maryville Daily Forum / via AP file

Montgomery was initially set to be executed in December, but the date was delayed after her attorneys, who are based in Nashville, Tennessee, contracted the coronavirus amid traveling to Texas and working on her case.

The spread of Covid-19 across prisons, including at the Indiana facility where all federal executions take place, contributed to increased criticism over the resumption of the federal death penalty last year, even as states put a halt to executions.

With Wednesday's lethal injection, the Trump administration has put 11 people to death over the past seven months, the most executions in a presidential lame-duck period in more than 130 years.

Montgomery's execution, which had been planned for Tuesday, was one of three scheduled by the Department of Justice this week.

In a ruling Tuesday, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled to stay the two other federal executions, those of Dustin Higgs and Corey Johnson.

Johnson, convicted of killing seven people related to drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs, convicted of ordering the murders of three women in Maryland, both tested positive for Covid-19 last month.

Chutkan wrote in her decision that it is not in the public interest to execute the two men.

In December 2004, Montgomery, then 36 and living in Kansas, crossed state lines to the Missouri home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, whom she had met at a dog show, federal prosecutors said. Stinnett was eight months pregnant.

Montgomery strangled Stinnett with a rope and used a kitchen knife she had brought from home to remove the fetus, according to court documents. The baby girl survived. Montgomery tried to pass her off as her own, but was quickly arrested and later convicted by a jury and sentenced unanimously to death.

Montgomery had been incarcerated in an all-female federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, where staff is trained to deal with mental health issues. Her lawyers said that they weren't arguing that she didn't deserve to be punished, but rather that the jury never fully learned of her severe mental illnesses as diagnosed by doctors.

In a nearly 7,000-page clemency petition filed this month, her lawyers say her mother's alcoholism caused her to be born brain-damaged and "resulted in incurable and significant psychiatric disabilities." They also detailed Montgomery's claims of physical abuse, rape and torture at the hands of her stepfather and others and being sex trafficked by her mother.

"Everything about this case is overwhelmingly sad," the petition says. "As human beings we want to turn away. It is easy to call Mrs. Montgomery evil and a monster, as the Government has. She is neither."

Diane Mattingly, an older sister of Montgomery, told reporters last week that she, too, suffered sexual abuse in the home before being placed in foster care. She has been vocal in recent months that her sister's life should be spared.

"I went into a place where I was loved and cared for and shown self-worth," Mattingly said. "I had a good foundation. Lisa did not, and she broke. She literally broke."

In October, the Justice Department described the case as an "especially heinous" murder. The Missouri community where her victim had lived gathered last month to remember Stinnett, with some expressing support for Montgomery's execution.

The U.S. government last executed a female inmate in 1953, when Bonnie Brown Heady of Missouri was put to death for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy in a ransom plot.