Trigger warning: sexual abuse, violence

Lisa Montgomery is one of three inmates scheduled to be executed by the Justice Department on January 12, 2021. Montogomery’s life has been shaped by violence, sexual abuse, trafficking, and neglect. 

The case

On December 24th, her lawyer filed a clemency petition to Donald Trump to commute her sentenced to life in prison with parole or delay the execution. This would open an investigation into the extreme trauma and violence Montgomery had been put through. While the crime committed is heinous, we cannot deny she is not mentally fit to be executed. Scheduling her execution during a pandemic means she has less access to courts and a clemency process. 

In 2004, under the fake name Darlene Fischer, she contacted Bobbie Stinnett to purchase a puppy from the breeder in Missouri.  She was eight months pregnant at the time. Montgomery drove from Kansas to her home and strangled Stinnett, cut open her abdomen, and removed the fetus. She took the baby home and tried to pass her off as her own. She was arrested the next day, and the baby was returned to Stinett’s husband. 

Lisa Montgomery’s history of abuse  

While her actions are reprehensible, they culminated from a lifetime of abuse and untreated mental illness. Her mother, Judy, drank through her pregnancy and regularly beat her children. 

During the investigation, her mother proudly told the investigator her daughter’s first sentence was, “Don’t spank me, it hurts.” While her biological father abandoned the family, her mother married Jack Kleiner. Kleiner regularly raped Montgomery. When they moved, Kleiner went out of his way to build a trailer with a separate entrance to her room.

Her mother knew about it bringing it up during divorce proceedings but did nothing to stop it. However, Kleiner was not the only one. According to multiple court documents, she let other men rape her daughter as well. Her mother trafficked her on multiple occasions to various men. She required that she “pay the bills” by engaging in sexual acts with multiple repairmen. 

The judge and counselor involved failed to intervene. Even Montogmery’s own cousin, who was a Deputy Sheriff, did not help her so she could be safe. However, she apparently pleaded with him not to report it for fear her stepfather would kill her.  

The abuse continued through her marriages. After the birth of her fourth child, she had a tubal ligation. Her mental health continued to deteriorate because not only did she believe she was pregnant on several occasions, but she drove all the way from San Antonio with her four children and a pet goat to see the Alamo. When her first husband threatened to expose her imaginary pregnancy, she drove to Stinett’s house, killed her, and took her baby. 

Poor legal council

If she can make it until inauguration day, she will most likely live because President-Elect Joe Biden is against the death penalty.  A federal court ruled that the government had acted illegally when they set a new execution date for her. However, that ruling was vacated by a three-panel judge of the court of appeals reinstating her original execution date. If there is no federal intervention, Montogomery would be the first woman to be executed in 70 years. The appeals court also denied her en banc petition, which asked the entire country to review the panel’s decision. Her legal team is finally filing an appeal with the supreme court. 

In 2007 Judy Clarke, a renowned capital defense attorney was brought on the case by Dave Owen. She began to build a case of Montgomery’s past sexual abuse, trafficking, violence, brain injury, and mental illness. Clarke is notorious for winning life sentences for clients sentenced to execution. 

She was dismissed from the case by a judge due to arguments among the defense team. Owen brought Frederick Duchardt, who is known by The Guardian as “The death row lawyer that keeps losing.” It seems her trial was already set up for an unfavorable outcome. One may wonder, if Clarke stayed on the case, would Montgomery be in the position she is in now?

With little to no evidence presented by the defense to prove the violence Montgomery suffered, their star witness was Dianne Mattingly, her half-sister. Mattingly had suffered similar abuse to Montgomery at the hands of her stepmother. When questioned on the stand, no one asked her about the violence and rape she experienced. It was her first time testifying in court, and no one prepared her.

During the investigation, Randy Strong, the detective on the case, claimed Montgomery did not show any remorse when confessing to the crime. He believes her lawyers are exaggerating her trauma and finds it to be a “terrible insult” to sexual assault survivors.

The lack of evidence and defense allowed prosecutors to downplay Montgomery’s abuse. Montgomery is not only the sole woman on death row but the only one to be sentenced to death for this crime. There are at least 18 other women with cases just like her own. However, none have faced the death penalty. 

It seems that not only did the system fail her, but her lawyers are not providing her proper defense. “We have no seen any other case in which lawyers have failed so spectacularly at presenting evidence that was at their fingertips,” said Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty. 

Babcock has done more work for Montogomery than her own lawyers by filing a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This is because her mental illness and lack of competence are a violation of her human rights. The petition charges the divorce court judge and deputy sheriff for failing to intervene previously. 

Can her death be prevented?

Her clemency petition rests in the hands of Trump’s administration, which has already cut back on funding for survivors of sex trafficking to clear their criminal records. There is one more argument that can be presented to the U.S. District Courts. According to the Federal Death Penalty Act, the federal government must implement the sentence following the law in the state where the crime took place. Therefore, the law in Missouri states you cannot execute more than one person per month. This could possibly buy her more time if the district judge addressed this plea. 

While we cannot deny the severity of the crime, this is clearly a woman who has endured severe trauma and never received proper help. Back in 2012, a gunman, James E. Holmes, shot and killed 12 people in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. He was sentenced to life in prison with no parole after the jury learned of his mental illness. 

A woman who has known nothing by violence, sexual abuse, and trauma her entire life will not be given that same sentence? Instead, a system that has constantly failed and neglected her will now be executing her, despite the evidence of her untreated mental illness. If Montgomery is not granted clemency, it not only shows horrendous flaws in our system but that women who are sexually exploited may continue to fear the very institution that should be protecting them. 

How you can help

If you want to help Lisa Montgomery please sign this petition. She is scheduled to be executed at 6 P.M. today.