WASHINGTON — In December 2004, Lisa M. Montgomery murdered a pregnant woman in Skidmore, Mo., and abducted the unborn child to claim as her own. The only woman on federal death row, she is scheduled for execution on Tuesday, and her defense team does not contest her guilt.
But her high-profile case — she would be the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953 — has focused new attention on whether a defendant’s full life experience should factor into sentencing, with her supporters arguing that she was a victim of long-running sexual abuse and torture who was driven to desperation.
On Friday, her lawyers asked the court to declare her incompetent in an effort to block her execution, citing serious mental illness, neurological impairment and complex trauma. The Supreme Court has found that executing the “insane” is unconstitutional.
Late Monday night, a federal judge in Indiana issued a stay in Ms. Montgomery’s case, temporarily suspending her execution, but the government has already appealed the ruling. In a separate, 5-to-4 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also issued a stay to her execution while it considers a claim related to the Federal Death Penalty Act.
The appeals court assigned a schedule to the case that could push Ms. Montgomery’s execution after the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has signaled his opposition to federal capital punishment. As of early Tuesday morning, court records did not yet indicate that the government had appealed the decision.
Still, for each of the last 10 inmates executed by the Trump administration, the courts were largely unreceptive to attempts to stop their executions and swiftly vacated lower-court orders that blocked them.
Ms. Montgomery, 52, is one of the last three of 13 people that the Trump administration has executed or scheduled for execution since resuming federal capital punishment last year, after a 17-year moratorium. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on Friday in another case blocking the remaining federal executions unless the government initiates certain measures to protect against spread of the coronavirus; however, the judge did not require the government to submit evidence of its compliance before the scheduled executions.
Ms. Montgomery’s crime was especially heinous. Beforehand, she had told others, including her husband, that she was pregnant, although she was infertile at the time, the Justice Department said in a court filing. Using the alias of Darlene Fischer, she contacted Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who operated a dog breeding business, and expressed interest in purchasing a puppy. Sometime during her visit, Ms. Montgomery strangled Ms. Stinnett, extracted the fetus and fled with it.
The baby lived. In December, around the child’s 16th birthday, Ms. Stinnett’s widower, Zeb Stinnett, sent a message to thank Randy Strong, now the Nodaway County sheriff in Missouri, for what he did for the family years ago. At the time, Mr. Strong was a detective on the case who surveyed Ms. Stinnett’s body after the crime and coaxed Ms. Montgomery into admitting her guilt.
Mr. Strong recalled that Ms. Montgomery appeared to show no remorse shortly after her crime. He said he believed that Ms. Montgomery’s lawyers were not being truthful about her past and added that the case was “a terrible insult” to sexual assault survivors.
He had planned to witness to Ms. Montgomery’s execution, but he is not permitted to do so during the pandemic, he said. Even if he cannot be there to witness it, he said, “I want to see it done.”
Ms. Montgomery’s defense team has sought to portray its client as a victim of sexual abuse, one whose story is a testament to the failures of the systems intended to protect her and who should not be executed for her crime.
Celebrities like Scarlett Johansson have joined the call for President Trump to commute Ms. Montgomery’s sentence. In a clemency petition, her defense team argued that the president now had “the power to send a message to the thousands of women who have been the victim of childhood rape and trafficking that their pain matters — that they matter — that their lives have value.”
The defense team said Ms. Montgomery’s abuse began early in her childhood. Her first full sentence was “don’t spank me, it hurts,” her mother recalled to a mitigation specialist years ago, according to a document provided by her defense team.
During her childhood, a man raped her half sister, Diane Mattingly, while Ms. Montgomery was in the room, Ms. Mattingly recalled.
After the state removed Ms. Mattingly from the home, Ms. Montgomery endured repeated sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, and her mother required that she “pay the bills” by engaging in sexual acts with various repairmen, a clinical psychologist said in a court declaration filed by the defense team. When Ms. Montgomery told a cousin in law enforcement about the assaults, she begged him not to report the abuse because she feared her stepfather would kill her.
President Trump has discussed potential pardons that could test the boundaries of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here’s some clarity on his ability to pardon.
- May a president issue prospective pardons before any charges or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” It is unusual for a president to issue a prospective pardon before any charges are filed, but there are examples, perhaps most famously President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon in 1974 of Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from being prosecuted after the Watergate scandal.
- May a president pardon his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not bar pardons that raise the appearance of self-interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may provoke a political backlash and public shaming. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a slew of controversial pardons, including to his half brother, Roger Clinton, over a 1985 cocaine conviction for which he had served about a year in prison, and to Susan H. McDougal, a onetime Clinton business partner who had been jailed as part of the Whitewater investigation.
- May a president issue a general pardon? This is unclear. Usually, pardons are written in a way that specifically describes which crimes or sets of activities they apply to. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything.
- May a president pardon himself? This is unclear. There is no definitive answer because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. As a result, there has never been a case which gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the question. In the absence of any controlling precedent, legal thinkers are divided about the matter.
- Find more answers here.
Lifelong trauma is not uncommon for those on death row. But Ms. Montgomery’s case is unusual, in part because she is one of relatively few women on death row across the country and the only one facing execution by the federal government. Women comprise about 2 percent of those on death row but commit about 10 percent of murders, according to Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Ms. Montgomery’s federal execution would be the first of a woman since Bonnie Brown Heady was put to death in the gas chamber for kidnapping and murder and Ethel Rosenberg was electrocuted for espionage, both 68 years ago.
Mr. Dunham said Ms. Montgomery’s trial lawyers had failed to adequately present the mitigating factors that might sway the jury from a death sentence. A judge removed Judy Clarke, a prominent death penalty lawyer who had helped win life sentences rather than capital punishment for some high-profile defendants, from the Montgomery case after arguments among the defense team, according to a court declaration from Ms. Clarke. In a handwritten note, Ms. Montgomery said the removal of her trusted lawyer was a “devastating blow.”
Mr. Dunham compared Ms. Montgomery’s case to that of the man who carried out the 2012 shooting rampage in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. The gunman, James E. Holmes, who killed 12 people, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole after the jury heard extensive arguments about his mental illness.
A number of Ms. Stinnett’s family members plan to attend Ms. Montgomery’s execution, according to a court declaration from a Bureau of Prisons official. Ms. Stinnett’s mother did not return requests for comment. But her community in northwest Missouri continues to mourn her loss and held a vigil on what had been scheduled as Ms. Montgomery’s original execution date before a judge delayed it. Among those present was Jena Baumli, a childhood friend of Ms. Stinnett’s who recalled spending time together in the city park and playing Nintendo at her house.
“I don’t understand how this went from a premeditated murder to, ‘Let’s feel sorry for Lisa’ case,” she said.
Ms. Montgomery’s supporters said they were not asking that she ever be released from prison but rather that Mr. Trump commute her sentence to life in prison without the possibility of release.
Ms. Mattingly said that by granting her sister clemency, the president could signal his stance on childhood trafficking and sexual abuse. She added that she was pleading with Mr. Trump as a survivor of sexual abuse herself.