US Executes Lisa Montgomery Despite Concerns Over Mental Illness

Multiple Catholic figures, including U.S. bishops, had spoken out against Montgomery’s planned execution, arguing that she was mentally unwell and that the death penalty itself is unjust.

Mugshot of Lisa Montgomery
Mugshot of Lisa Montgomery (photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

TERRA HAUTE, Ind. — Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, was executed early Wednesday morning, despite her attorneys’ arguments that her severe mental illness rendered her unable to understand why she was being killed.

Montgomery’s execution was one day after her scheduled execution date on January 12. On Monday, a court had issued a stay of execution as it was unclear if Montgomery was mentally competent enough to be executed.

Montgomery’s attorneys say she had brain damage and severe mental illness, including diagnoses of bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder associated with being a victim of abuse and human trafficking.

The attorneys argued that her mental state had deteriorated since the date of her execution was announced. She had reportedly begun hearing voices, and at one point said that “God spoke with her through connect-the-dot puzzles.”

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, January 12, that the execution could proceed. Montgomery, 52, is the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953.

“The application for stay of execution of sentence of death is presented to the Chief Justice and by him referred to the Court is denied. The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied,” said the Supreme Court on Tuesday. The death sentence had been stayed by the D.C. Circuit Court.

The Supreme Court later ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that “The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Barrett and by her referred to the Court is denied.” The order noted that Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor would have accepted the application and stayed the execution.

This decision was published early on Tuesday morning. No explanation was given for the decision.

Montgomery was executed by lethal injection and pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m. (EST), a little over an hour after the Supreme Court refused to stay her execution. She was executed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, home of the federal death row.

Montgomery was transported to Terre Haute on Tuesday morning, local media reported. She had previously been held at a federal prison in Texas. Male inmates on federal death row are housed in the U.S. Penitentiary.

Amy Harwell, one of Montgomery’s attorneys, told the Huffington Post that Montgomery was denied access to her spiritual advisor in the execution chamber.

“[Montgomery’s spiritual advisor] told her that after the execution started, he intended to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ while the chemicals flowed. That was the plan,” said Harwell.

“But when we arrived at the execution house, [Bureau of Prisons staff] did not allow him to be with her. I explained that he was her designated spiritual adviser and needed to be in the chamber with her. A woman said she’d go check, and then she came running back and said it was too late. Lisa was on the gurney, all strapped in,” she said.

Harwell called this a “needless indignity, and a deprivation of really her basic humanity.”

According to the Associated Press, Montgomery looked “momentarily bewildered” when she saw the crowd of journalists who had gathered to view her execution. The AP reported that Montgomery declined to give any sort of last statement.

One of Montgomery’s attorneys, Kelley Henry, called her execution the result of “the craven bloodlust of a failed administration,” and said that “everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”

Henry noted that Montgomery was the “victim of unspeakable torture and sex trafficking,” and that “no one can credibly dispute Mrs. Montgomery’s long standing debilitating mental disease.”

“Our Constitution forbids the execution of a person who is unable to rationally understand her execution. The current administration knows this. And they killed her anyway,” said Henry.

“As courts agreed Lisa’s case presented important legal issues warranting serious consideration – including whether she was competent to execute – the government hammered onward with appeals,” she said.

Henry described the execution as “far from justice,” and said that she never should have been sentenced to death, “as no other woman has faced execution for a similar crime.”

Montgomery was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant. Montgomery proceeded to cut open Stinnett’s uterus and delivered her child, a girl. She then kidnapped the girl across state lines. The girl was safely recovered the day following her mother’s murder.

Henry insisted that Montgomery was “much more than the tragic crime she committed, a crime for which she felt deep remorse before she lost all touch with reality in the days before her execution,” as well as the abuse she suffered throughout her life.

Henry called Montgomery a “loving mother, grandmother, and sister who adored her family,” and a devout Christian.

“When not gripped by psychosis, she was a gentle and caring person whom I was honored to know and to represent,” said Henry.

Multiple Catholic figures, including U.S. bishops, had spoken out against Montgomery’s planned execution, arguing that she was mentally unwell and that the death penalty itself is unjust.

In 2019, the Trump administration announced that federal executions would resume after a nearly two-decade moratorium.