Only Woman on Federal Death Row Granted Time to Seek Clemency

Lisa Montgomery was 36 when she murdered a 23-year-old pregnany woman in Skidmore, Missouri, on July 16, 2004. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration plans to execute the only woman on federal death row next month, but a federal judge granted her more time Thursday to seek clemency after her attorneys tested positive for Covid-19.  

Lisa Montgomery’s execution set for Dec. 8 would be the first time the U.S. government has executed a woman since 1953. Her attorneys told the Washington court that she suffers from brain damage and was sexually abused, including gang raped, and trafficked as a child by her family. 

Mental health groups and former prosecutors have urged President Donald Trump to grant Montgomery, 52, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. They argue the trauma she suffered throughout her childhood “severed her connection to reality.”

Montgomery was sentenced to death in 2008 for strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant. She then cut the fetus from Stinnett’s womb and pretended the infant was her own before being arrested. 

After two of Montgomery’s long-serving attorneys came down with coronavirus in recent weeks, U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss ruled Thursday that the government cannot execute Montgomery before Dec. 31.

“Given the gravity of the circumstances and the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, the court concludes that the balance of equities and the public interest weigh in plaintiff’s favor,” the 24-page opinion states. 

An Obama appointee, Judge Moss said Montgomery had committed a “brutal crime,” and that there is a strong public interest in carrying out a sentence imposed 12 years ago. 

But Montgomery is entitled to “meaningful access to the clemency process,” Moss wrote, adding the public also has an interest in making sure that “fail safe” of the criminal justice system “operates in a fair and considered manner.”

He said the three-week delay of Montgomery’s execution respects the government’s interest in avoiding “unjustified delays” in death-penalty cases. 

After the government announced plans to execute Montgomery, her attorneys paid four visits to the federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, where she is being held. They claim to have contracted Covid-19 there.

The Justice Department did not dispute that her two attorneys, Amy Harwell and Kelley Henry, were suffering from serious cases of Covid-19. 

Sandra L. Babcock, another attorney for Montgomery and a Cornell University law professor, said Thursday’s ruling gives the prisoner a “meaningful opportunity” to present a request for clemency after Harwell and Henry recover. 

Her case presents “compelling grounds for clemency,” Babcock said in a statement, “including her history as a victim of gang rape, incest, and child sex trafficking, as well as her severe mental illness.” 

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday afternoon. 

In a separate case, the ACLU accuses the government of holding Montgomery in “torturous conditions” that could very well add to the trauma she internalized after years of sexual abuse and “constant terror.” 

The government plans to execute another federal inmate, Orlando Hall, Thursday evening. His attorneys have filed a last-minute request for the Supreme Court to stay his death sentence, after the D.C. Circuit ruled the Justice Department’s new lethal-injection protocol is unlawful.  The Trump administration has already relied on the one-drug method to execute seven federal inmates this year, the most of any presidency in U.S. history. 

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