TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - A Kansas woman was executed Wednesday for strangling an expectant mother in Missouri and cutting the baby from her womb, the first time in nearly seven decades that the U.S. government has put to death a female inmate.
Lisa Montgomery, 52, was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m. after receiving a lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. She was the 11th prisoner to receive a lethal injection there since July when President Donald Trump, an ardent supporter of capital punishment, resumed federal executions following 17 years without one.
As a curtain was raised in the execution chamber, Montgomery looked momentarily bewildered as she glanced at journalists peering at her from behind thick glass. As the execution process began, a woman standing over Montgomery’s shoulder leaned over, gently removed Montgomery’s face mask and asked her if she had any last words. "No," Montgomery responded in a quiet, muffled voice. She said nothing else.
She tapped her fingers nervously for several seconds, a heart-shaped tattoo on her thumb, showed no signs of distress, and quickly closed her eyes. As the lethal injection began, Montgomery kept licking her lips and gasped briefly as pentobarbital, a lethal drug, entered her body through IVs on both arms. A few minutes later, her midsection throbbed for a moment, but quickly stopped.
Montgomery lay on a gurney in the pale-green execution chamber, her glasses on and her grayish brown hair spilling over a green medical pillow. At 1:30 a.m., an official in black gloves with a stethoscope walked into the room, listened to her heart and chest, then walked out. She was pronounced dead a minute later.
"The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight," Montgomery’s attorney, Kelley Henry said in a statement. "Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame."
"The government stopped at nothing in its zeal to kill this damaged and delusional woman," Henry said. "Lisa Montgomery’s execution was far from justice."
It came after hours of legal wrangling before the Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution to move forward. Montgomery was the first of the final three federal inmates scheduled to die before next week’s inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to discontinue federal executions.
But a federal judge for the District of Columbia halted the scheduled executions later this week of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs in a ruling Tuesday. Johnson, convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs, convicted of ordering the murders of three women in Maryland, both tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
Montgomery killed 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby girl from the womb with a kitchen knife. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own.
An appeals court granted Montgomery a stay of execution Tuesday, shortly after another appeals court lifted an Indiana judge’s ruling that found she was likely mentally ill and couldn’t comprehend she would be put to death. But both appeals were lifted, allowing the execution of the only female on federal death row to go forward.
As the only woman on federal death row, Montgomery had been held in a federal prison in Texas and was brought to Terre Haute on Monday night.
Montgomery’s legal team says she suffered "sexual torture," including gang rapes, as a child, permanently scarring her emotionally and exacerbating mental-health issues that ran in her family.
At trial, prosecutors accused Montgomery of faking mental illness, noting that her killing of Stinnett was premeditated and included meticulous planning, including online research on how to perform a C-section.
Henry balked at that idea, citing extensive testing and brain scans that supported the diagnosis of mental illness. She said the issue at the core of the legal arguments are not whether she knew the killing was wrong in 2004 but whether she fully grasps why she is slated to be executed now.
U.S. District Judge James Patrick Hanlon, who had halted Montgomery’s execution before the stay was overturned on appeal, cited defense experts who alleged Montgomery suffered from depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Montgomery, the judge wrote, also suffered around the time of the killing from an extremely rare condition called pseudocyesis in which a woman’s false belief she is pregnant triggers hormonal and physical changes as if she were actually pregnant.
Montgomery also experiences delusions and hallucinations, believing God spoke with her through connect-the-dot puzzles, the judge said, citing defense experts. The government has acknowledged Montgomery’s mental issues but disputes that she can’t comprehend that she is scheduled for execution for killing another person because of them.
Details of the crime at times left jurors in tears during her trial.
Prosecutors told the jury 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 Stinnett. She strangled Stinnett performing a crude cesarean and fleeing with the baby.
Prosecutors said Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery cut the baby girl from her womb. Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up in the parking lot of a Long John Silver’s in Topeka, Kansas, telling him she had delivered the baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing center.
Montgomery 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.
Prosecutors said the motive was that Montgomery’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.
Anti-death penalty groups said Trump was pushing for executions prior to the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.
The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady on Dec. 18, 1953, for the kidnapping and murder of a 6-year-old boy in Missouri.
The last woman executed by a state was Kelly Gissendaner, 47, on Sept. 30, 2015, in Georgia. She was convicted of murder in the 1997 slaying of her husband after she conspired with her lover, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death.