A woman has been executed for strangling an expectant mother and taking her baby, the first time in nearly seven decades the US government has put to death a female inmate.
Lisa Montgomery, 52, was pronounced dead after receiving a lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
She was the 11th prisoner to receive a lethal injection there since July when President Donald Trump, an ardent supporter of capital punishment, resumed federal executions following 17 years without one.
As the execution process began, a woman standing over Montgomery’s shoulder leaned over, gently removed her face mask and asked if she had any last words. “No,” Montgomery responded in a quiet voice. She said nothing else.
“The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight,” Montgomery’s lawyer Kelley Henry said in a statement. “Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.
“The government stopped at nothing in its zeal to kill this damaged and delusional woman. Lisa Montgomery’s execution was far from justice.”
It came after hours of legal wrangling before the Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution. Montgomery was the first of the final three federal inmates scheduled to die before next week’s inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to discontinue federal executions.
But a federal judge for the District of Columbia halted the scheduled executions later this week of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs in a ruling on Tuesday. Johnson, convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs, convicted of ordering the murders of three women in Maryland, both tested positive for Covid -19 last month.
Montgomery killed 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the Missouri town of Skidmore in 2004.
She used a rope to strangle Ms Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby girl from the womb with a kitchen knife. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own.
History of mental illness
An appeal court granted Montgomery a stay of execution on Tuesday, shortly after another appeals court lifted an Indiana judge’s ruling that found she was probably mentally ill and could not comprehend she would be put to death. Both appeals were lifted, allowing the execution of the only female on federal death row.
“I don’t believe she has any rational comprehension of what’s going on at all,” Ms Henry said on Monday night.
Montgomery’s legal team says she suffered “sexual torture”, including gang rapes, as a child, permanently scarring her emotionally and exacerbating mental health issues that ran in her family.
At trial, prosecutors accused her of faking mental illness, noting that her killing of Ms Stinnett was premeditated and included meticulous planning, including online research on how to perform a Caesarean section.
Ms Henry rejected that idea, citing extensive testing and brain scans that supported the diagnosis of mental illness.
“You can’t fake brain scans that show the brain damage,” she said.
In his ruling on a stay, US District Judge James Patrick Hanlon cited defence experts who alleged Montgomery suffered depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Montgomery, the judge wrote, also suffered around the time of the killing from an extremely rare condition called pseudocyesis in which a woman’s false belief she is pregnant triggers hormonal and physical changes as if she were actually pregnant.
Montgomery also experienced delusions and hallucinations, believing God spoke to her through connect-the-dot puzzles, the judge said, citing defence experts.
“The record before the Court contains ample evidence that Ms Montgomery’s current mental state is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution,” the judge said.
The government acknowledged Montgomery’s mental issues but disputed she could not comprehend she was scheduled for execution for killing another person.
Trump ‘pushed for executions’
Prosecutors told the jury Montgomery drove about 170 miles from her home to Skidmore under the guise of adopting a puppy from Ms Stinnett. She strangled her performing a crude Caesarean and fleeing with the baby.
Prosecutors said Ms Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery cut the baby girl from her womb.
Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up from a car park, telling him she had delivered her own baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing centre.
Montgomery was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, who is now 16 and has not spoken publicly about the tragedy.
Anti-death penalty groups said Mr Trump was pushing for executions before the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.
The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady on December 18 1953, for the kidnapping and murder of a six-year-old boy in Missouri.
The last woman executed by a state was Kelly Gissendaner, 47, on September 30 2015, in Georgia. She was convicted of the 1997 murder of her husband after she conspired with her lover, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death.