On the morning of Wednesday January 13, 2021, at 1:31am, the first federal execution of a woman took place in the United States since 1953. The woman, Lisa Montgomery, was given a lethal injection in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she was being held in the town’s prison complex. In 2004, Montgomery drove over 170 miles from her home in Melvern, Kansas to that of the pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Skidmore, Missouri, where she strangled her with a rope and cut her child out from her womb with a kitchen knife. The “Womb Raider,” as she came to be known, was apprehended the next day after trying to pass off the infant, now 16-year old Victoria Jo, as her own. According to her husband at the time, Montgomery planned the crime in order to present a baby as her own in order to gain custody of two of her children in court (she had previously been lying about being pregnant herself, and needed a child quickly).
Severely mentally wounded and suffering from PTSD, depression and borderline personality disorder, Montgomery had a harsh upbringing that included multiple gang rapes and other traumatic events that exacerbated her family’s history of mental illnesses. Montgomery was so mentally damaged in fact that one of her lawyers, Kelley Henry, stated she “has [no] rational comprehension of what’s going on at all,” referring to her death sentence. Montgomery’s mental state and illness was the main defense for her attorneys, which prosecutors accused her of faking, despite brain scan evidence.
U.S. govt executes convicted murderer #LisaMontgomery, the only woman on federal death row, early on Wednesday. Montgomery’s execution marked the first time a female prisoner has been executed since 1953 in the United States.#lisamontgomery execution pic.twitter.com/FYHUbr4pUL
— DD News (@DDNewslive) January 13, 2021
Montgomery’s death was the 11th execution carried out under Trump’s presidency, who eagerly resumed the practice of capital punishment following a 17-year absence. Many American presidents (particularly Democrats) have not been in favor of capital punishment, so it certainly came as no shock when trump reinstated the death penalty. However, President-Elect Joe Biden is expected to discontinue the practice following his official inauguration on January 20.
The execution for some is an apropos microcosm of the consequences of the last four years under the Trump Administration. Following Montgomery’s injection, backlash from Henry and other lawyers quickly followed. Henry herself stated in response:
“The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight. Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”
Two more executions were scheduled before the end of Trump’s term. However, this week a federal judge halted the executions, planned for inmates Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs on Thursday and Friday, respectively. The delay came in light of both inmates testing positive for COVID-19, which besides risking the health of those present at the execution, supposedly would impact the painless lethal injection process, making it more akin to waterboarding torture followed by death, which the court saw as inhumane.
This begs the question: if the concern was so great that the execution will be too painful to the point that it was put off, why go through with it at all? Surely it is also inhumane to execute in the first place. No politician, or civilian for that matter, who is against the death penalty wishes to justify or defend the crimes of death row inmates, only to make a statement that nobody, not even the most heinous of criminals deserves such inhumanity.
"All I can do right now is pray that for the first time in Lisa's life, someone does the right thing and says 'I will stand up for you'" – Diane Mattingley, #LisaMontogomery's sister.
— Reprieve US (@ReprieveUS) January 11, 2021
If the delay lasts beyond the 20th, Biden’s Inauguration Day, there is the distinct possibility that both inmates could be spared, provided Biden acts quickly. Given his own aversion to the death penalty and the time-sensitive nature of the issue, many democrats have urged the President-Elect to quickly end federal death sentences as soon as he takes office. Prior to Montgomery’s execution, a social media campaign even gained traction sporting the hashtag #SaveLisa.
Johnson and Higgs execution halt is not the only thing that could benefit from a delay until Biden’s inauguration. With a second impeachment just confirmed by the House (making Trump the first president in history to be impeached twice), the only hope of a successful removal from office (even a post-term one) is if the Senate votes for such once it is controlled by Democrats. Even Mitch McConnell has blocked a speedy trial until then. While such an action would to some extent be symbolic after Trump leaves office, preventative measures could also be taken in the process to bar Trump from holding future office, making the action more than just a kick in the teeth to Trump.
Similarly, if Johnson and Higgs’ lives are ultimately spared, it could be a very good (if morbid) symbolic omen for the Biden presidency after Trump is finally out. It could not only be a small step forward for our completely fractured justice system, but could also begin to usher in a culture of rehabilitation and humanity. It could even be the start of a slow but hopeful process of rebuilding the nation.