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US executes Lisa Montgomery for 2004 murder

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration early Wednesday morning executed Lisa M. Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row whose death marked the first federal execution of a woman in nearly 70 years.

Montgomery, 52, was sentenced to death for murdering a pregnant woman in 2004 and abducting the unborn child, whom she claimed as her own. In pleas to spare her life, Montgomery’s supporters argued that a history of trauma and sexual abuse that marred her life contributed to the circumstances that led to the crime. Her case, unusual in part because so few women are sentenced to death, ignited debate over the role of offenders’ past trauma in criminal sentencing.


Despite a series of court orders that briefly blocked her execution, she was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m. at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement. Her death, by lethal injection, is the 11th execution since the Trump administration resumed use of federal capital punishment in July after a 17-year hiatus.

According to a spokesperson for the defense team, Montgomery was transported, fully shackled, from a federal medical center in Texas to Terre Haute on Monday night. The federal penitentiary where the vast majority of federal death row prisoners are housed is an all-male facility, and an official said in a court declaration that the Bureau of Prisons planned to house Montgomery at the execution facility, where she would be the only inmate.

Shortly before Montgomery’s death, a female prison staff member gently removed Montgomery’s face mask and asked if she had any last words, to which Montgomery responded, “No,” according to a report from a journalist in attendance.

Under a pseudonym, Montgomery — who had falsely told others that she was pregnant — expressed interest in buying a dog from Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a rat terrier breeder in Skidmore, Mo. But after she arrived at Stinnett’s house, Montgomery strangled her, used a knife to cut her abdomen and extracted the fetus, then claimed the child as her own.


The baby girl lived and turned 16 last month on the anniversary of her mother’s death. At least some of those close to Stinnett or the case said Montgomery’s execution was a just conclusion to a crime that had haunted the northwest Missouri community for years.

Richard Chaney, 38, a childhood friend and classmate of Stinnett’s, recalled biking to the local gas station with her, describing how in high school she had a “huge crush” on the man who would later become her husband.

Chaney rejected the idea that the abuse suffered by Montgomery should have led to her life being spared, saying many people endured trauma without committing heinous crimes. “You don’t see them out killing pregnant women and cutting babies out,” he said.

“I get, you know, people like, ‘Death penalty’s wrong,’ but at what point do you excuse something like this?” he asked, several days before Montgomery was put to death. “I think, you know, it’s not right always to say an eye for an eye, but I think the community’s hurt enough that it would definitely help with some closure.”

Still, Montgomery’s lawyers cited the repeated physical and sexual abuse she endured as a child in pleas for leniency, arguing that President Trump would affirm the experiences of abuse survivors by commuting her sentence to life imprisonment. Her mother forced her to “pay the bills” through sexual acts with various repairmen, and her stepfather regularly subjected her to sexual abuse, a clinical psychologist said in a court declaration filed by her defense team.


Women are scarce on death row in the United States. According to a quarterly report from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, just 2 percent of those inmates on death row are women. With Montgomery’s execution, there are now no women on federal death row.

The last women to be executed by the federal government were Bonnie Brown Heady for kidnapping and murder and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage, both in 1953.

Montgomery’s execution was originally scheduled for last month. But after two of her lawyers contracted the coronavirus, a judge delayed it, and the Justice Department rescheduled.

In her final days, Montgomery found some fleeting reprieve in the courts. Her lawyers had claimed that she was incompetent for execution, citing mental illness, neurological impairment, and complex trauma. A federal judge in Indiana issued a stay Monday night so that the court could conduct a hearing to determine her competency. But a panel on the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit vacated that stay Tuesday, writing that Montgomery’s claim could have been brought earlier. The judges also cited Supreme Court precedent, which emphasizes that last-minute stays of execution “should be the extreme exception, not the norm.”

Still, other court orders continued to block her execution well after the Bureau of Prisons’ tentatively scheduled execution time of 6 p.m. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a separate stay so that the court could hear her claim related to the Federal Death Penalty Act, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its own stay.


But the Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution to proceed, as it has done with the previous 10 inmates executed by the Trump administration. On Tuesday, the court overturned both stays, the remaining barriers to her execution, and rejected each of Montgomery’s requests for reprieve.