Failed by the system: why Lisa Montgomery must not be executed

OPINION

On Christmas Eve, just nineteen days before her execution was scheduled to take place, Lisa Montgomery was given more time. A federal court ruled that her execution date violated regulations establishing the procedures for carrying out the death penalty. Having been on death row since 2007, Montgomery is awaiting the death penalty for her murder conviction. However, on 2ndJanuary 2021, her execution was reinstated by a Court of Appeals. If the execution goes ahead, she will be the first woman to be executed on federal death row since 1953. As part of Trump’s valedictory killing spree, her death now looks probable, but Lisa Montgomery has been a victim all her life, and executing her would only fuel the cycle of violence which has defined her since childhood. 

While Montgomery is indisputably guilty, her crime is the tragic product of the cumulatively damaging events in her life, and for this reason she should be spared the death penalty. As her execution date draws near, thousands of organisations and individuals have submitted letters and petitions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in protest of her execution on the basis that her trial “fell far short of minimum standards of fairness in violation of international law.”

Her crime is the tragic product of the cumulatively damaging events in her life, and for this reason she should be spared the death penalty.

The highly debilitating nature of Montgomery’s psychological impairments, listed as “bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, traumatic brain injury and most likely foetal alcohol syndrome,” suggests that she has been failed by the “failsafe” of the US criminal justice system, executive clemency. Ms Magazine notes that her case is “just the sort of situation” that the clemency process was “designed to root out.” Her case reveals the problematic nature of this process, which under President Trump has become increasingly characterised by cronyism and corruption. 

This is not the only aspect of Lisa Montgomery’s case which speaks to wider issues; firstly the failure of the state to take steps to curtail and prevent the abuse that she suffered, despite adequate reason to do so, highlights the plight of vulnerable children in America. Secondly, Montgomery’s case reveals significant systemic sexism; the fact that she is a woman has made her vulnerable to the injustices which permeate the criminal justice system. 

The failure of the state to take steps to curtail and prevent the abuse that she suffered, despite adequate reason to do so, highlights the plight of vulnerable children in America.

On 14thDecember 2004, two days before the crime, Carl, her abusive ex-husband and stepbrother, filed for custody of two of her children. At the time, Montgomery had told her new husband that she was expecting a baby. Carl knew this to be untrue because she had previously been coerced into an involuntary sterilisation after the birth of her fourth child, and threatened to use her “imagined pregnancy” to his advantage in the custody battle. On 16thDecember, Montgomery drove to the home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Lisa strangled the pregnant twenty-three year old, cut the baby from her mother’s abdomen, took the living baby home, cared for her, and pretended she was her own child. 

The crime reflects her increasingly tenuous grip on reality, a direct product of the many multifaceted mental disorders that distorted her outlook and continue to cause frequent dissociative episodes. It is important to note that she had not received any treatment for these conditions until after her heinous crime. Her actions were inextricably linked to her traumatic childhood, built on the foundations of oppression, exploitation, and sexual violence. Montgomery was essentially raised in captivity, by an abusive mother and a succession of abusive father figures. Born into a family rife with mental illness, her childhood was not only characterised by consistent violence, but also by instability; she moved seventeen times during the first fourteen years of her life. Making friends was therefore both difficult as well as the least of her concerns. 

Montgomery was essentially raised in captivity, by an abusive mother and a succession of abusive father figures.

For her mother, “parenting was […] an exercise in cruelty.” Lisa was regularly beaten with an assortment of household objects, and was not allowed to speak or make any noise, or duct tape would be used to silence her. Her father left when she was three years old and her mother remarried a man named Jack Kleiner. When Lisa turned 13, she was consistently raped by Jack and occasionally by his friends at least twice a week, for three years. Her mother was not only aware of, but complicit in her abuse.

Lisa was regularly beaten with an assortment of household objects, and […] duct tape would be used to silence her.

When Lisa turned 15, Judy began prostituting her daughter in exchange for utilities and services. It would be easy to assume that her abuse went unnoticed, but Lisa informed her cousin, a deputy sheriff, who failed to report the crimes, and now claims to “live with regret” for not doing so. Formerly a top student at school, Lisa’s performance declined to the point where she was placed in a special needs class; school administrators noticed that she had started to come to school in dirty clothes, full of holes, but failed to investigate. As we can see, the little girl and teenager, Lisa, was failed multiple times by mechanisms that should have been there to protect her.

When Lisa turned 13, she was consistently raped by Jack and occasionally by his friends at least twice a week, for three years. Her mother was not only aware of, but complicit in her abuse.

Encouraged by her mother, at seventeen Lisa became engaged to her stepbrother, and she was married at eighteen. Far from affording her protection from abuse, her husband continually raped her, and she suffered further physical and emotional abuse throughout her marriage. Predictably, her mental health spiralled into further decline. The leading petition states that “the years of constant abuse, combined with her genetic predisposition to mental illness, deprived Mrs. Montgomery of the most basic conditions required for normal human functioning” and that “[t]he trauma impaired her functioning in every sphere of her existence.” She began to mentally distance herself from her hellish reality and her erratic behaviour worsened. By the time she was thirty-four she had moved sixty-one timesan echo of the unstable environment she had endured as a child. She divorced and married into another abusive relationship. 

Her husband continually raped her, and she suffered further physical and emotional abuse throughout her marriage.

A traumatic childhood and subsequent adulthood ultimately resulted in Montgomery committing a truly horrifying crime. This case speaks to the wider question of our perception of crime. Few would disagree that we need some kind of protection from individuals who pose a direct threat to society, for example convicted murderers and sexual offenders, but if this case has anything to show, it’s that violence is born of violence. 

It seems fair to apply this conclusion to the use of the death penalty: is murder the answer to murder, even in cases of such unimaginable tragedy as this? Surely it is in the nature of a state to lead by example, but if the precedent set is based on violence as a reaction to violence, will this not legitimise further use of violence? 

Is murder the answer to murder […] ?

This case illustrates as well as any other that the perpetrator can be as much a victim in certain ways. As a child, Montgomery was failed by her family, her abusers (and unfortunately the overlap between them) and social services (who took her sister into custody but left her behind). As an adult, her childhood trauma was compounded by further sexual, physical and psychological abuse from her husbands; she was a victim of these men. Moreover, as The New York Times reports, “she was sentenced to death because her trial lawyers, uninformed about gender violence, didn’t seem to understand how to defend her.” In a recent interview, her sister commented “Because maybe if she hadn’t been failed by the people she needed most in society, she could have been part of it.” 

“She was sentenced to death because her trial lawyers, uninformed about gender violence, didn’t seem to understand how to defend her.”

If compassion alone does not build a sufficient case in favour of her living, the facts of her trial should. Sandra Babcock, founder and faculty director of the Cornell Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide, notes that “in virtually all cases like Lisa’s over the last few decades, prosecutors have decided not to ask for death.” She states “in any capital case, the most important factor that determines whether the defendant will live or die is the quality of the defence team.”

Montgomery’s predominantly male defence team was led by David Owen, who had never previously defended someone facing the death penalty, and was ill-equipped to emphasise the role played by her history of sexual abuse. Owen requested the removal of Judy Clarke, an attorney renowned for defending mentally ill clients and victims of abuse, from the defence team, reportedly because he was “not particularly good at working with women.” This was the death blow to Lisa’s prospects. The defence team failed to demonstrate an adequate correlation between her trauma and her crime. Her prosecution was allowed to dismiss the evidence of Lisa’s sexual trauma as nothing but “the abuse excuse.” 

Babcock describes the case as being “all about gender”. To expand, she argues that Lisa Montgomery would not have suffered many of the crimes against her if she had not been a woman, and therefore would not have been driven to the brink of insanity, which led to the murder of Stinnett. She suggests that the failure of the defence team is in part due to the “playbook” by which prosecutors treat capital cases involving women: “They condemn women who are bad mothers, or who don’t fit an idealised version of femininity.” Lisa’s mental trauma severely impacted her role as a mother: she was neglectful and abusive. Instead of being used in her favour during the trial as further evidence of her suffering, this fact was used against her by the prosecution team. It is almost impossible to ignore the gendered nature of the systemic injustices present in her trial. 

Lisa Montgomery would not have suffered many of the crimes against her if she had not been a woman, and therefore would not have been driven to the brink of insanity…

As her last hope, the clemency process seems to be her only option. It is defined as “the power of a President in federal criminal cases […] to pardon a person convicted of a crime, commute the sentence […] or reduce it from death”. In the list of reasons why this power may be exercised, “humanitarian reasons” is included, but crucially also “because the party is a political or personal friend.” The vast majority of Trump’s pardons and commutations have gone to convicted criminals with close personal or political ties, most notably Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. Conversely, Trump’s ‘lame duck period’ has been used to schedule the executions of people such as Lisa Montgomery and Brandon Bernard, who was put to death on 10thDecember 2020, with alarming alacrity. The blatantly biased way in which Trump has misused his executive power to reward cronies and absolve certain allies who have not met Department of Justice guidelines for a pardon is another troubling example of the way in which systemic injustice is allowed to flourish, specifically systemic patriarchy. Lisa’s rapists and abusers have faced no consequence for the damage they caused, not only to her, but also ultimately to innocent Bobbie Jo Stinnett. 

The violence she committed as a result of her mental decay could cost her her life under the same system that facilitated her numerous abusers.

Lisa was never given a chance in life, and her life could imminently come to a tragic and premature end. The violence she committed as a result of her mental decay could cost her her life under the same system that facilitated her numerous abusers. While she actually committed the crime, the real blame lies with these abusers, many of whom face no consequence. It is in situations like these that the concept of ‘justice’ seems elusive in the so-called criminal justice system. President-elect Joe Biden has stated that he is opposed to the death penalty. Soon he will have the power to grant clemency to those on federal death row. It remains to be seen whether he will put a stop to the state-sanctioned murder awaiting Lisa Montgomery. 

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