Judge halts first US execution of female inmate in 67 years

An Indiana federal judge has halted the U.S. government’s first execution of a female inmate in nearly seven decades, saying a court must first determine whether the Kansas woman who killed an expectant mother, cut the baby from her womb and then tried to pass off the newborn as her own is mentally competent.

The order, handed down by Southern District Judge James P. Hanlon less than 24 hours before Lisa Montgomery was set to be executed Tuesday at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, temporarily blocks the federal Bureau of Prisons from moving forward with her execution. The Justice Department didn’t immediately comment.

Lisa Montgomery, as shown in court documents, was spared execution by lethal injection that had been scheduled Jan. 12 at the federal prison in Terre Haute.

Montgomery’s lawyers have said their client suffers from hallucinations — including hearing her abusive mother’s voice — as well as a disoriented sense of reality and gaps in her consciousness. They have long argued that she is not mentally fit to be executed because she suffers from serious mental illness and faced years of emotional and sexual trauma as a child.

Hanlon found that the court must first hold a hearing to determine whether Montgomery meets the legal criteria for competency before the execution can move forward, finding she “would be irreparably injured if the government executes her when she is not competent to be executed.”

Kelley Henry, one of Montgomery’s attorneys, praised the ruling and said her client is “mentally deteriorating.”

“The court was right to put a stop to Lisa Montgomery’s execution,” Henry said in a statement. “As the court found, Mrs. Montgomery ‘made a strong showing’ of her current incompetence to be executed. Mrs. Montgomery has brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of people like Mrs. Montgomery who, due to their severe mental illness or brain damage, do not understand the basis for their executions.”

Separately, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued another stay in Montgomery’s case for an appeal related to the Justice Department’s execution protocols and said briefs must be fully filed in that case by Jan. 29, raising the prospect her execution could be delayed until after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Biden has said he opposes the death penalty and a spokesman told the AP he would work to end its use, but Biden’s team has not said whether he would halt executions after his inauguration on Jan. 20.

Montgomery drove about 170 miles from her Melvern, Kansas, farmhouse to the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy from Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old dog breeder. She strangled Stinnett with a rope before performing a crude cesarean and fleeing with the baby.

She was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, who is now 16 years old and hasn’t spoken publicly about the tragedy.

“As we walked across the threshold our Amber Alert was scrolling across the TV at that very moment,” recalled Randy Strong, who was part of the northwest Missouri major case squad at the time.

He looked to his right and saw Montgomery holding the newborn and was awash in relief when she handed her over to law enforcement. The preceding hours had been a blur in which he photographed Stinnett’s body and spent a sleepless night looking for clues — unsure of whether the baby was dead or alive and no idea what she looked like.

But then tips began arriving about Montgomery, who had a history of faking pregnancies and suddenly had a baby. Strong, now the sheriff of Nodaway County, where the killing happened, hopped in an unmarked car with another officer. He learned while en route that the email address that was used to set up the deadly meeting with Stinnett had been sent from a dial-up connection at Montgomery’s home.

“I absolutely knew I was walking into the killer’s home,” recalled Strong, saying rat terriers ran around his feet as he approached her house. Like Stinnett, Montgomery also raised rat terriers.

Bobbie Jo Stinnett’s mother, Becky Harper, sobbed as she told a Missouri dispatcher about stumbling across her daughter in a pool of blood.

Prosecutors said Montgomery’s motive was that Stinnett’s ex-husband knew she had undergone a tubal ligation that made her sterile and planned to reveal she was lying about being pregnant in an effort to get custody of two of their four children. Needing a baby before a fast-approaching court date, Montgomery turned her focus on Stinnett, whom she had met at dog shows.

Montgomery’s lawyers, though, have argued that sexual abuse during Montgomery’s childhood led to mental illness.

Her stepfather denied the sexual abuse in videotaped testimony and said he didn’t have a good memory when confronted with a transcript of a divorce proceeding in which he admitted some physical abuse. Her mother testified that she never filed a police complaint because he had threatened her and her children.

But the jurors who heard the case, some crying through the gruesome testimony, disregarded the defense in convicting her of kidnapping resulting in death.

Montgomery eventually confessed, and the rope and bloody knife used to kill Stinnett were found in her car. A search of her computer showed she used it to research caesareans and order a birthing kit.

Montgomery originally was scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 8. But the execution was temporarily blocked after her attorneys contracted the coronavirus visiting her in prison.

The resumption of federal executions after a 17-year pause started on July 14. Anti-death penalty groups said President Donald Trump was pushing for executions prior to the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.

U.S. officials have portrayed the executions as bringing long-delayed justice for victims and their families.

Separately, Southern District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson has ordered all future executions be conducted under tightened COVID-19 procedures, potentially delaying two other executions scheduled this week.

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