The only woman on federal death row has been executed after an 11th-hour order from the Supreme Court cleared all legal obstacles to carrying out her death sentence.
Lisa Montgomery, 52, was pronounced dead at 1.31am EST on Wednesday at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana in what could be the final federal execution under President Donald Trump.
Just before midnight on Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued an order removing the final legal barriers to the execution, and minutes later it became clear that the execution was proceeding immediately as witnesses were moved to the execution area.
The Department of Justice issued a new notice of execution, dated January 13, informing Montgomery that her death sentence would be carried out on January 13.
The order just before midnight on Tuesday allows the execution of Lisa Montgomery to proceed, removing the final legal barriers in the case
Protesters in opposition to the death penalty gathered to protest the execution of Lisa Montgomery outside the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana on Tuesday
Kelley Henry, Montgomery’s lawyer, in scathing remarks, called the pending execution, ‘vicious, unlawful, and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power.’
‘No one can credibly dispute Mrs. Montgomery’s longstanding debilitating mental disease – diagnosed and treated for the first time by the Bureau of Prisons’ own doctors,’ Henry said in a statement.
The Supreme Court ruling removed the final legal barriers to the execution, which Montgomery’s attorneys had hoped to delay until the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, a death penalty opponent.
Montgomery, who is from Kansas, killed expectant mother Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Missouri in 2004 before cutting the baby from Stinnett’s womb and attempting to pass off the newborn as her own.
Some of Stinnett’s relatives have traveled to Indiana witness Montgomery’s execution, the Justice Department said.
In Tuesday night’s ruling, the Supreme Court’s three liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan — dissented, saying they would grant the stay that Montgomery’s attorneys sought.
A woman has not been executed at a federal level since 1953. There are currently 52 prisoners on Federal Death Row: 51 men, and one woman – Montgomery.
Left: Expectant mother Bobbie Jo Stinnett at a dog show. Right: Zeb Stinnett and baby Victoria Jo Stinnett, who was cut from her mother’s womb by Montgomery in the gruesome attack
Montgomery, 52, had originally been scheduled to be killed by lethal injections of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, at 6pm EST on Tuesday, but last minute legal challenges delayed the execution.
The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of the execution on Monday, siding with her lawyers that the government had scheduled her execution in violation of the original sentencing court’s judgment issued in 2007.
That stay was vacated by the Supreme Court late on Tuesday.
Separately, a federal judge on the 7th Circuit in Indiana had ordered the execution to be postponed to allow for a hearing on whether she was too mentally ill to be executed.
‘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,’ Judge Hanlon wrote in his ruling.
‘Both the (government) and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence,’ he said, citing precedent.
But ‘it is also in the public interest to ensure that the government does not execute a prisoner who due to her mental condition ‘cannot appreciate the meaning of a community’s judgement.”
But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned the stay on Tuesday afternoon. Montgomery’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling, which they declined.
Montgomery faced execution Tuesday at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, (pictured) Indiana , just eight days before President-elect Joe Biden , an opponent of the federal death penalty, takes office
Montgomery’s execution was one of three that were to supposed be the last before President-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of the federal death penalty, is sworn-in next week.
Now following legal challenges it’s unclear how many additional executions there will be under President Donald Trump, who resumed federal executions in July after 17-year pause. Ten federal inmates have since been put to death.
Separately from Montgomery’s case, a federal judge for the U.S. District of Columbia halted the scheduled executions later this week of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs in a ruling Tuesday.
Johnson was convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs was convicted of ordering the murders of three women in Maryland.
Both tested positive for COVID-19 last month, and a judge ruled they should be allowed to recover before facing execution.
Montgomery’s shocking crime: Killer strangled pregnant mother and stole her child through crude C-section
In 2004, Montgomery drove about 170 miles from her Melvern, Kansas, farmhouse to the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy from Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old dog breeder.
She strangled Stinnett with a rope before performing a crude cesarean and fleeing with the baby.
She was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, who survived and is now 16 years old and hasn’t spoken publicly about the tragedy.
In 2007, Montgomery was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death and handed a death sentence. She would have been the first woman executed by the federal justice system since 1953.
‘As we walked across the threshold our Amber Alert was scrolling across the TV at that very moment,’ recalled Randy Strong, who was part of the northwest Missouri major case squad at the time.
He looked to his right and saw Montgomery holding the newborn and was awash in relief when she handed her over to law enforcement.
The preceding hours had been a blur in which he photographed Stinnett’s body and spent a sleepless night looking for clues – unsure of whether the baby was dead or alive and no idea what she looked like.
But then tips began arriving about Montgomery, who had a history of faking pregnancies and suddenly had a baby. Strong, now the sheriff of Nodaway County, where the killing happened, hopped in an unmarked car with another officer.
He learned while en route that the email address fischer4kids(at)hotmail.com that was used to set up the deadly meeting with Stinnett had been sent from a dial-up connection at Montgomery’s home.
Lisa Montgomery (left), due to be killed by lethal injections on Jan. 12, was convicted in 2007 in Missouri for kidnapping and strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett (right)
A group shot from the dog show in Abilene, Kansas. Lisa Montgomery (second from left), Bobbi Jo (second from right) and Zeb Stinnett (far right) pose with their dogs
‘I absolutely knew I was walking into the killer’s home,’ recalled Strong, saying rat terriers ran around his feet as he approached her house. Like Stinnett, Montgomery also raised rat terriers.
Bobbie Jo Stinnett’s mother, Becky Harper, sobbed as she told a Missouri dispatcher about stumbling across her daughter in a pool of blood, her womb slashed open and the child she had been carrying missing.
‘It’s like she exploded or something,’ Harper told the dispatcher on December 16, 2004, during the desperate yet futile attempt to get help for her daughter.
Prosecutors said her motive was that Stinnett’s ex-husband knew she had undergone a tubal ligation that made her sterile and planned to reveal she was lying about being pregnant in an effort to get custody of two of their four children.
Needing a baby before a fast-approaching court date, Montgomery turned her focus on Stinnett, whom she had met at dog shows.
Montgomery’s lawyers, though, have argued that sexual abuse during Montgomery’s childhood led to mental illness.
Attorney Kelley Henry spoke in favor of Monday’s decision, saying in a statement to the Capital-Journal that ‘Mrs. Montgomery has brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers.’
Montgomery, now 52, was abused by her stepfather, who built a room in the back of a trailer where they lived in which he and his friends raped her from about the age of 11, and where her mother pimped her for sex, Montgomery’s lawyers said.
Montgomery suffered sexual abuse and torture at the hands of her stepfather and mother that Montgomery’s lawyers and her sister, who was also raped in their childhood home, compared to a horror movie. In a nearly 7,000-page clemency petition filed earlier in January, they asked Trump to commute Montgomery’s sentence to life in prison
Diane Mattingly, Montgomery’s older sister, previously told reporters at a briefing that she was also repeatedly raped, sometimes with Montgomery in the same room, until authorities removed her to foster care.
‘So many people let her down,’ Mattingly said. ‘Yes, I started out the same way, but I went into a place where I was loved and cared for and shown self worth. I had a good foundation. Lisa did not and she broke. She literally broke.’
Her stepfather denied the sexual abuse in videotaped testimony and said he didn’t have a good memory when confronted with a transcript of a divorce proceeding in which he admitted some physical abuse.
Her mother testified that she never filed a police complaint because he had threatened her and her children.
But the jurors who heard the case, some crying through the gruesome testimony, disregarded the defense in convicting her of kidnapping resulting in death.
Prosecutors argued that Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from her womb.
Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up in the parking lot of a Long John Silver’s in Topeka, Kansas, telling him she had delivered the baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing center.
She eventually confessed, and the rope and bloody knife used to kill Stinnett were found in her car. A search of her computer showed she used it to research Cesareans and order a birthing kit.
Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in December 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby girl from the womb with a kitchen knife, authorities said. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own, prosecutors said
Pictured: Demonstrators protest federal executions of death row inmates, in front of the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, on December 10, 2020
Stinnett’s husband, Zeb, told jurors his world ‘crashed to an end’ when he learned his wife was dead.
He said he didn’t return for months to the couple’s home in Skidmore, a small farming community that earlier gained notoriety after the 1981 slaying of town bully Ken Rex McElroy in front of a crowd of people who refused to implicate the killer or killers.
That crime was chronicled in a book, ‘In Broad Daylight,’ as well as a TV movie, the film ‘Without Mercy’ and the miniseries ‘No One Saw a Thing.’
President-elect Joe Biden’s stance on the death penalty
After current president Donald Trump resumed the federal death penalty in 2020 – for the first time in 17 years – president-elect Joe Biden has signalled his intention to eliminate capital punishment at a federal level.
On Joe Biden’s website outlining the policies of the in-coming commander-in-chief, he instead proposes that individuals on death row should ‘serve life sentences without probation or parole.’
‘Over 160 individuals who’ve been sentenced to death in this country since 1973 have later been exonerated,’ his website says.
‘Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.
‘These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.’
Recently, on Victoria Jo’s birthday, he sent Strong, the sheriff, a message through Facebook Messenger thanking him.
‘I just wept,’ Strong recalled. ‘He is going to constantly be reminded of this whether in his nightmares or somebody is going to call and want to interview him.
‘The family doesn’t want to be interviewed. They want to be left alone. The community of Skidmore has had a troubling past and history. They didn’t want this. They didn’t deserve this.’
Montgomery originally was scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 8. But the execution was temporarily blocked after her attorneys contracted the coronavirus visiting her in prison.
Without denying the seriousness of her crime, Montgomery’s lawyers last week sought clemency from US President Donald Trump.
But Trump, an outspoken supporter of the death penalty, has so far failed to act on their request. He has allowed more executions in a year than any other U.S. president has done since the 19th century.
Despite the decline of capital punishment in the US and around the world, Trump’s administration, revived the punishment in the federal system in 2020 after a 17-year hiatus even as the novel coronavirus spread to infect prison employees, inmates’ lawyers and two other inmates facing execution.
Biden – who takes office on January 20 – has promised to work with Congress to try and abolish the death penalty altogether.
Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo has said the president-elect ‘opposes the death penalty now and in the future’ and would work as president to end its use.
But Ducklo did not say whether executions would be paused immediately once Biden takes office.
Developing story, more to follow.