Warning: This article contains descriptions of murder and sexual assault.
Next Tuesday, barring an intervention by President Trump so unlikely as to qualify as miraculous should it occur, Lisa Montgomery will become the first woman executed on US federal death row in almost 70 years. The murder she committed was shocking, but from the very beginning her life has been a horror story, and her death will be a monstrous injustice.
On December 16, 2004, Bobbie Jo Stinnett opened the door of her Skidmore, Missouri home to a woman she had met in an online chatroom for dog-breeders. Ms Stinnett was 23-years-old, and eight months pregnant with her first baby.
She and her husband Zeb ran a dog-breeding business from their home, and she had been expecting a visit from a customer purportedly named “Darlene Fischer” who said she was interested in buying a pup. This woman had told Ms Stinnett that she too was pregnant, and they had chatted online about their respective pregnancies.
Sometime after entering Ms Stinnett’s home, Lisa Montgomery, then 36, strangled her from behind with a rope, until Ms Stinnett was unconscious, and then cut open her abdomen, removing her baby. Montgomery then left with the infant, and returned to her home in Melvern, Kansas.
Bobbie Jo Stinnett was found, in a pool of blood, by her mother, Becky Harper, roughly an hour after the attack. Ms Harper said it looked as though her daughter’s “stomach had exploded”. Attending paramedics were unsuccessful in their attempts to revive Ms Stinnett, and she was pronounced dead at St Francis’ Hospital, Maryville.
Police arrested Lisa Montgomery the following day at the farmhouse home she shared with her husband, where they found her holding the baby and watching television as an Amber Alert about the abduction flashed across the screen. The day-old baby Victoria Jo Stinnett was united with her father, Zeb, who described his daughter as “a miracle”. Mr Stinnett would go on to raise his daughter with the help of his family, and Bobbie Jo’s family. Victoria turned 16 last month.
Lisa Montgomery was charged with the federal offence of kidnapping resulting in death, a crime with a mandatory sentence on conviction of life imprisonment or the death penalty. According to the Guardian, a week before trial her defence attorneys, led by Frederick Duchardt, abandoned one line of defence, that Montgomery’s brother Tommy had murdered Stinnett, when Tommy was found to have an alibi. As a result, Montgomery’s family refused to cooperate with the defence and describe to the jury her background.
Montgomery’s defence team then claimed that she had been suffering from pseudocyesis, a mental condition leading her to falsely believe she was pregnant. Expert testimony was given that she was suffering from depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In October 2007 Montgomery was found guilty, with the jury recommending the death sentence. Because the prosecution had managed to get Duchardt’s pseudocyesis defence thrown out as having no scientific basis in fact, Montgomery’s past trauma and her separate diagnoses of mental illness were not fully revealed to the jury until after her conviction. To the jury, Montgomery had seemed unemotional and without remorse. In fact, she was heavily dosed with anti-psychotic drugs.
By her mother’s admission, Lisa Montgomery’s first words were “Don’t spank me. It hurts.” Lisa’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, claimed she had been sexually assaulted by Lisa’s father, and through Lisa’s infancy she abused her child sadistically, regularly covering Lisa’s mouth with duct-tape to keep her quiet.
By the time Lisa was 11, her stepfather, Jack Kleiner, had begun sexually abusing her, keeping her in a lean-to shed adjoining their family trailer. If she resisted, he would bang her head on the concrete floor hard enough to cause permanent brain damage. Kleiner, a rampant alcoholic, would later invite his friends to rape Lisa, which they did together, for hours at a time, ending their abuse by urinating on the child. When Lisa was 14, her mother discovered the abuse, but her reaction was to threaten her daughter with a gun, screaming “How could you do this to me?” Lisa’s mother then began to prostitute her out to pay for household bills.
For Lisa, the liquor her step-father stored in the lean-to helped to block out some of the horrific daily abuse. When she turned 18, she tried to escape that abuse by marrying. She would have four children, but that relationship and a subsequent marriage led to further violence and abuse.
Experts who examined Lisa Montgomery after her conviction found that she was often disassociated from reality, suffering from florid psychosis, bipolar disorder and PTSD. The many beatings she had received as a child left her with permanent brain damage.
As Guardian journalist David Rose wrote in a compelling argument that she received an incompetent defence, “The evidence that Lisa Montgomery was a victim as much as a perpetrator should have been overwhelming”.
The death penalty was outlawed at US state and federal level by a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, but a 1976 Supreme Court decision allowed states to reinstate the death penalty. In 1988 the US government passed legislation to reinstate the death penalty at federal level. Between 1988 and 2018, 78 people were sentenced to death in federal cases but only three were executed.
Until now, US federal authorities have executed only three women. The first was Mary Surratt, hanged in 1865 for conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, and the second was Ethel Rosenberg, who, along with her husband Julius, was convicted of being a Soviet spy and executed by electric chair in June 1953. The last woman to be executed by the US government was Bonnie Heady, who was, alongside her lover Carl Hall, convicted of the kidnapping and murder of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, the son of a multi-millionaire car dealer. Heady died in a Missouri gas chamber in December 1953.
The US federal government has, since 1790, executed some 653 men.
Federal executions had been on hold in the US since 2003, but President Trump ordered them to be resumed last year. If all of the deaths scheduled between here and the end of Trump’s term occur, he will have overseen the most federal executions of any US president in over a century.
President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated on 20 January, was for decades as a Delaware senator a staunch supporter of the death penalty, but has now said he will seek to end federal executions once he is in office.
Last week a federal appeals court lifted a stay of execution, and Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to die by lethal injection on 12 January, 2021 in the Terre Haute penitentiary in Indiana. Her only hope now is that Donald Trump might pardon her, but that is a forlorn hope, because the defeated president, for 30 years an enthusiastic fan of the death penalty, is far too busy wrecking America’s democracy, pardoning his own enablers, and wondering whether he can pardon himself on his way out the door.
“This is a story about a woman who is profoundly mentally ill as a result of a lifetime of torture and sexual violence,” Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and a consultant to Montgomery’s legal team told the Guardian. “Lisa is not the worst of the worst – she is the most broken of the broken.”
Lisa Montgomery murdered Bobbie Jo Stinnett in cold blood and cut her baby from her belly, but as a victim of the most horrific abuse, and as a woman suffering from brain damage and severe mental illness, Lisa Montgomery never stood a chance in life.
As Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in a devastating opinion piece in the New York Times last month, “punch after punch, rape after rape, a murderer was made”.
Lisa Montgomery’s execution will be a monstrous injustice.