In the early morning of Jan. 13, the U.S. federal government executed Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row and the first woman to be put to death by the federal government in 67 years. In the months leading up to Montgomery’s death, more attention than ever has focused on her story, the conditions she lived under while on death row, the nature of her crime, the impact on her family and that of her victim, and the lifetime of abuse she endured—abuse that received little to no attention or support when she most needed it.
Up until the execution, Montgomery’s team of lawyers had been urging President Trump and the courts to grant her clemency and commute her sentence to life imprisonment without parole, or to offer a reprieve that would allow her team to compile more comprehensive evidence that they were being prohibited from collecting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Communities of lawyers, mental health professionals, prosecutors, and more than 265,000 members of the general public also wrote letters and signed petitions demanding the same. Still, the Trump administration moved forward, adding Montgomery to the list of 11 people executed by the federal government since July 2020. The federal government has scheduled two other executions for this week, continuing the unprecedented escalation of executions during the final days of Trump’s lame duck administration.
Montgomery’s supporters, including her defense team, did not deny that she committed a particularly gruesome murder nor did they absolve Montgomery of her responsibility for that crime and the unspeakable pain she caused Bobbie Jo Stinnett and her family. Instead, advocacy around Montgomery’s case rested on the idea that the courts and society at large repeatedly failed her: that as a child she deserved safety, that her abuse led her to commit the crimes for which she was sentenced, and that during her trial the violence she endured not only went unrecognized but was instead met with more violence. In fact, during Montgomery’s 2007 trial, all of the female lawyers representing her were taken off her case despite her severe discomfort being alone with men. Judy Clarke, the lawyer initially leading her defense, was replaced by Fred Duchardt, an attorney with a track record of losing capital cases. According to Sandra Babcock, of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, “lawyers have failed so spectacularly to present evidence [that would be] at their fingertips if they had asked the right questions.” Information about Montgomery’s past abuse was not presented at trial, which may partially explain why she was sentenced to death while the 14 other American women known to have committed similar murders in the recent past were not. Montgomery is survived by her 4 children, her husband Kevin Montgomery, and her half-sister Diane Mattingly. She was 52 years old.
Montgomery was executed by a system that is not only rife with discrimination and operates with a staggering margin of error, but which also relegates people to one of two categories: innocent or guilty, victim or criminal, good or evil, worthy of mercy or unfit to live. Those categorizations gloss over the nuances found in every person’s story and ignore the contradictions that inevitably emerge throughout a lifetime. By contextualizing Montgomery’s specific acts of violence within a broader story shaped by abuse and unaddressed needs, Montgomery’s supporters highlighted the many societal failures that shaped both her case and the cases of countless others on death row. Perhaps, anti-death penalty advocates argue, assuming collective responsibility for those failures might do more to ensure justice than simply condemning people to die.
For additional context on Lisa Montgomery’s story and the stories of women on death row in the United States, read Prism’s series on women and the death penalty.