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Analysis

‘The Most Broken of the Broken’

Lisa Montgomery, lifelong victim of trauma and abuse, should be spared from execution.

Last Updated: January 12, 2021
Published: January 11, 2021
prison
Scott Olson/Getty

Lisa Mont­gomery is the only woman on federal death row. She is sched­uled to be executed on Tues­day and will be the first woman in 67 years to be killed by the federal govern­ment. Her execu­tion date is just over a week before Joe Biden — who opposes the death penalty — will be sworn in. She will be the tenth person in the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s accel­er­ated execu­tion spree that star­ted in July 2020 after a 17-year hiatus on federal execu­tions.

Lisa’s execu­tion is not only unusual because of her gender — her sched­uled death is disturb­ing because of her extens­ive history of trauma, abuse, and mental illness, making her execu­tion legally and morally ques­tion­able. Those who suffer from such severe mental illnesses are legally less culp­able for their crimes, as such illnesses can impair their capa­city to under­stand their conduct or exer­cise rational judge­ment, similar to juven­iles and those with intel­lec­tual disab­il­it­ies. (Mental impair­ments, such as severe mental illness, are some­times referred to as “dimin­ished capa­city,” which several states allow as evid­ence negat­ing the required mental state to commit a crime.) Lisa argu­ably qual­i­fies for such an excep­tion, and yet senten­cing author­it­ies have failed to fully hear and consider her history of abuse and her mental condi­tion.

A history of trauma

Lisa’s adoles­cence was filled with trauma and abuse — and provides import­ant context for under­stand­ing both her crime and her punish­ment. Lisa’s clem­ency peti­tion alleges that her mother beat her and invited men to rape her in exchange for services (such as roof­ing or plumb­ing work) or money. One of her mother’s husbands began to sexu­ally assault her start­ing at age 11, allow­ing his friends to as well. Decades of trauma and sexual abuse culmin­ated in a disso­ci­at­ive disorder and Complex Post-Trau­matic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) that signi­fic­antly impaired her neur­o­lo­gical func­tion­ing. As a result of this trauma, she relies on psycho­tropic medic­a­tions and becomes panicked and breaks out in hives if left alone in a room with a man. As her attor­neys note, “Had just one person inter­vened, all of this could have been avoided. But they did not.”

Then, during a psychotic epis­ode in 2004, she drove to preg­nant Bobbie Jo Stin­nett’s home, killed her, kidnapped Stin­nett’s newborn child, and attemp­ted to pass the baby off as her own. She was appre­hen­ded and the baby girl was returned to her family.

Lisa’s crime was a tragedy. Her mental illness does not excuse the act, and Lisa has accep­ted respons­ib­il­ity for her crime and is deeply remorse­ful. Yet it is import­ant to acknow­ledge that this crime is “inev­it­ably the product of seri­ous mental illness,” a life­time of trauma and abuse during which no one protec­ted or helped Lisa. As Sandra Babcock of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty World­wide noted, “Lisa is not the worst of the worst – she is the most broken of the broken.”

At her trial, Lisa’s attor­ney failed to advoc­ate for herremov­ing one of Lisa’s compet­ent attor­neys from the case, and leav­ing out vital evid­ence of Lisa’s trauma. The health testi­mony presen­ted at her original jury trial was “unsup­por­ted and so badly bungled” that the jury could­n’t fully under­stand how her mental illnesses, brain damage, and exper­i­ences of torture were related to her crime. Now, Lisa is sched­uled for execu­tion by the federal govern­ment on Tues­day, despite numer­ous pieces of evid­ence point­ing to severe mental illness.

The turmoil of the death penalty in the United States

Lisa should not be sentenced to death: the death penalty is an outdated and uneth­ical insti­tu­tion that has no place in our civil­ized soci­ety. Only half of U.S. states still func­tion­ally main­tain the death penalty. Polling shows Amer­ic­ans disfa­vor the death penalty. Inter­na­tion­ally, 142 coun­tries have legally or func­tion­ally abol­ished the death penalty, while just 56 main­tain capital punish­ment.

There are numer­ous reas­ons the death penalty is prob­lem­atic: it has a troub­ling error rate (with 172 exon­er­a­tions since 1973), numer­ous accounts of botched execu­tions and pain (even in the case of seem­ingly “humane” lethal injec­tions), and it’s prone to harm­ful racial bias. Although youth and intel­lec­tual disab­il­it­ies can serve as bars against a death sentence, the Supreme Court has yet to rule that mental illness, even severe cases, make capital punish­ment uncon­sti­tu­tional. (Still, several state courts have found the death penalty uncon­sti­tu­tional under state consti­tu­tions.) Yet many factors — such as vulner­ab­il­ity to police intim­id­a­tion, legal “compet­ency” to stand trial, and the abil­ity to form the requis­ite crim­inal intent to warrant a capital offense — weigh in favor of protect­ing those who are seri­ously mentally ill from being sentenced to death.

Moreover, special issues are at play when women are on death row. Like Lisa, most women executed in the United States have histor­ies of phys­ical, sexual, and/or child abuse, and many came from poverty. Capital trials involving women are also shaped by gender issues, such as fear­mon­ger­ing around the idea that women have stepped outside of gender norms.

The time for abol­i­tion is now, start­ing with Lisa

Biden campaigned on elim­in­at­ing the death penalty. Over 1,000 advoc­ates and current and former prosec­utors have asked Pres­id­ent Trump to stop Lisa’s execu­tion, along with the Inter-Amer­ican Commis­sion on Human Rights and a coali­tion of U.N. experts.

This is what justice demands. Lisa’s parents failed to care for her, the state failed to inter­vene in an abused child’s life, and she has been plagued with severe mental illness for most of her life. Lisa has been punished enough, and Trump should commute her death sentence.

And when Biden takes office, he should put death penalty abol­i­tion at the top of his prior­it­ies.