Who is Lisa Montgomery? Witness to Innocence says only woman on federal death sentence should not be executed

Activists argue that Montgomery has faced relentless trauma which amplified her genetic predisposition to mental illness which led to her crime


                            Who is Lisa Montgomery? Witness to Innocence says only woman on federal death sentence should not be executed
Lisa Montgomery (Witness to Innocence)

On Thursday, November 19, US District Judge Randolph D Moss temporarily blocked the federal government from executing a Kansas woman, who killed an expectant mother in northwest Missouri, after her attorneys contracted Covid-19. Moss's order prohibits the federal Bureau of Prisons from carrying out Lisa Montgomery’s execution before the end of the year. Should Montgomery's execution be carried through, she will become the first woman in nearly 70 years to be executed by the federal government — Montgomery is the only woman who is on the federal death sentence among 55 prisoners. Montgomery had earlier been scheduled to die by lethal injection on December 8 this year.

However, activists have been campaigning that Montgomery should not be executed given all the details about her past, particularly the non-profit organization, Witness to Innocence (WTI). In a statement to MEAWW, WTI said, "Throughout her life, Lisa has faced relentless trauma which amplified her genetic predisposition to mental illness. Over 1,000 current and former prosecutors, anti-violence advocates, anti-trafficking organizations, advocates for abused and neglected children, and mental health advocates have come together to ask the President to stop her execution."

What crime is Lisa Montgomery accused of?

On December 4, 2004, the then-36-years-old Montgomery murdered a 23-year-old woman, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant at the time. Montgomery was convicted of strangling Stinnett from behind and then removing Stinnett's unborn child from her womb. The child was later safely recovered by authorities. Montgomery had met Stinnett online in a Rat Terrier chatroom called "Ratter Chatter" and the two women communicated about their pregnancies after Montgomery claimed that she was pregnant. However, it was only after the murder that Montgomery's abusive ex-husband informed the authorities that she had undergone sterilization in 1990.

Why does WTI say Montgomery should not be executed?

Montgomery's case has been made public and the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide (from Cornell Law School) describes her past in detail, explaining Montgomery's mental trauma that led to the crime. According to the report provided by the Cornell Law Center, Montgomery is a survivor of child abuse, domestic violence, incest, multiple rapes and child sex trafficking. Her mother sexually trafficked her starting when she was a small child, including allowing her to be gang-raped by adult men on multiple occasions and telling Lisa she had to “earn her keep”. Cornell states, "Her years of torture at the hands of caregivers, documented brain damage, and severe mental illness have severed her connection with reality; without antipsychotic medication, she would lose the ability to understand what is happening to her and to know what is real."

Montgomery's mother drank throughout her pregnancy, causing her to be born with organic brain damage. Montgomery's mother was reportedly violent and neglectful and would beat her children. According to reports, Montgomery's mother would punish her children by putting them in cold showers, or by whipping them with belts, cords, or hangers. She taped Montgomery's mouth shut with duct tape when she didn’t want to hear Montgomery speak. On one occasion, her mother killed the family dog in front of Montgomery and her siblings to punish them. Montgomery's mother had multiple partners who would abuse Montgomery and her older sister. After her older sister was taken away by social services, their mother married Jack Kleiner, who raped Montgomery repeatedly since she was 11. While her mother knew about the rapes, she did nothing.

After her mother's divorce from Kleiner, Montgomery's mother started to invite men to the house to have sex with Montgomery (she was 15 years old at the time) in exchange for money and services. According to reports, these men raped her orally, vaginally, and anally, and her mother forced her to submit to the "sexual torture of gang-rape". While those around Montgomery noticed signs that she was being abused, no one intervened to stop it. The judge at her mother's divorce from Kleiner shouted at her mother for failing to report the abuse, yet failed to report the incident himself. Montgomery's cousin, David Kidwell who was a police officer, also knew about the abuse but did nothing in response.

Following years of repeated abuse, Montgomery developed multiple mental disorders, including bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. The sexual torture caused her to dissociate from reality. She developed a dissociative disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“C-PTSD), a chronic mental illness that is common in those exposed to overwhelming threats to their physical safety.

Dr Katherine Porterfield, a renowned expert on torture and trauma, has testified that the impact of Montgomery's sexual abuse was “massive,” and that her disorder was one of the most severe cases of dissociation she had ever seen. According to Dr Porterfield, Montgomery "has a very troubled relationship to her own body. She literally does not perceive her body accurately in some cases and has trouble remembering, for instance, states of her body with accuracy”. Montgomery has trouble processing information and social relationships. She struggles to maintain her own hygiene, loses focus during conversations with others, and has trouble planning simple tasks.

Montgomery's mother had forced her to marry her stepbrother at eighteen. He would continue the cycle of abuse, raping and beating her, capturing his torture of Montgomery on video. After Montgomery gave birth to four children, her mother pressured her into involuntary sterilization. Over the years, her mental health continued to deteriorate, and her behavior became increasingly erratic. She lived in dire poverty. A social services report documented the family’s terrible living conditions, citing missing walls, floors, no running water or plumbing, no furniture or beds, loose wires, and children sleeping on the floor.

Two days before Montgomery killed Stinnett, her ex-husband (the stepbrother) filed for custody of their two children. He threatened to expose her after knowing that she told her then-husband that she was pregnant since her ex-husband knew about the forced sterilization. The threat of losing her children combined with years of trauma and severe mental illness pushed Montgomery past the brink as she killed Stinnett and took her unborn baby.

According to Cornell, Montgomery found it hard to trust anyone, particularly men, due to the exploitation she endured, and therefore, her predominantly male defense team, controlled by Dave Owen, was ill-equipped to address her complex trauma. Since Montgomery has been on death row, prison psychiatrists have controlled the worst symptoms of her mental illness with a variety of psychotropic medications. In prison, she has received treatment for her mental illness that she never received in her life before her arrest. Despite the medication, Montgomery still panics — and often breaks out in hives — if she is in a room alone with a man.

Why has her execution been blocked?

The injunction was entered in a lawsuit filed on Montgomery’s behalf by Cornell Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, arguing that Mrs. Montgomery’s longtime lawyers could not complete her clemency application by the November 15 deadline because they contracted Covid-19 while traveling to visit her and are suffering debilitating symptoms.

The lawsuit also explained that the pandemic affects more than counsel because the experts familiar with Montgomery’s mental health history cannot travel to assess her current condition and thus cannot assist in the clemency process. Judge Moss’s order blocks the government from executing Lisa Montgomery until December 31, 2020.

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