Administration accused of ‘unnecessary and vicious use of authoritarian power’
Lisa Montgomery was executed by lethal injection in Indiana. Photograph: Reuters
The Guardian- Luke Harding and agencies
A lawyer has accused the Trump administration of “unnecessary and vicious use of authoritarian power” after a woman on death row was executed early on Wednesday, the first federal execution of a woman in almost seven decades.
Lisa Montgomery, 52, was pronounced dead at 1.31am on Wednesday after receiving a lethal injection. She died at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, after the US supreme court lifted a stay of execution and rejected a request from her legal team for delay.
Montgomery was the 11th prisoner to be killed by lethal injection since Donald Trump resumed federal executions last July after a 17-year hiatus. The president is an ardent supporter of capital punishment.
Kelly Henry, Montgomery’s longtime attorney, denounced the move. “The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight,” Henry said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”
She added: “The government stopped at nothing in its zeal to kill this damaged and delusional woman. Lisa Montgomery’s execution was far from justice. We should recognise [it] for what it was: the vicious, illegal and unnecessary use of authoritarian power. We cannot let this happen again.”
It came after hours of legal wrangling before the supreme court cleared the way for the execution to go ahead. Montgomery was the first of the final three federal inmates scheduled to die before next week’s inauguration of Joe Biden as president, who is expected to discontinue federal executions.
On Tuesday a federal judge for the District of Columbia halted the scheduled executions later this week of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs. 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.
In 2004 Montgomery killed 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the north-west Missouri town of Skidmore. 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. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own.
The girl survived. Brought up by her father, she turned 16 last month on the anniversary of her mother’s death. The New York Times quoted some of those close to her as saying that Montgomery’s death was a just conclusion to the case. The crime haunted the Missouri community for years, it added.
Montgomery was originally due to be executed last month. A judge delayed it after two of her lawyers contracted coronavirus. Her attorneys argued that she suffered from mental illness, neurological impairment and complex trauma. On Monday a federal judge in Indiana stayed her execution so the court could establish her competency.
On Tuesday, however, an appeals court panel overruled this stay, saying it could have been brought earlier. Two further courts – in the district of Columbia and the eighth circuit court – issued their own separate stays. But the US supreme court ruled on Tuesday that the execution could proceed, as it has done in all previous Trump-era executions.
Montgomery was taken from a Texas prison to the Terre Haute facility, fully shackled. She was kept in a cell in the complex. In the moments before her death a female prison guard removed Montgomery’s face mask and asked her if she had any last words. She reportedly replied “no”. “I don’t believe she has any rational comprehension of what’s going on at all,” Henry said.
Montgomery’s legal team says she was subjected to “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 Montgomery of faking mental illness, noting that her killing of Stinnett was premeditated and included meticulous planning, including online research on how to perform a C-section.
Henry said extensive testing and brain scans supported the diagnosis of mental illness. “You can’t fake brain scans that show the brain damage,” she said.
Henry said the issue at the core of the legal arguments was not whether she knew the killing was wrong in 2004 but whether she fully grasped why she was slated to be executed now.
In his ruling on a stay, the US district judge James Patrick Hanlon in Terre Haute cited defence experts who said Montgomery suffered from depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said Montgomery 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 with her through connect-the-dot puzzles, the judge said, citing expert witnesses.
“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.