(Reuters) - The U.S. government executed convicted killer Lisa Montgomery by lethal injection early on Wednesday, making her the first woman executed by federal authorities since 1953 and the 11th person subjected to capital punishment under the Trump administration.
Montgomery, 52, was sentenced to death for the December 2004 strangulation of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant at the time and found slain in her Missouri home. Montgomery had cut Stinnett’s fetus from the womb and tried to pass off the child as her own before she was arrested. The infant was safely recovered by authorities and returned to the father.
Montgomery was charged with the federal offense of kidnapping resulting in death, and a jury found her guilty in 2007, rejecting the defense claim that she was delusional.
She was put to death by an injection of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, in the U.S. Justice Department’s execution chamber at its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
After Montgomery was strapped to a gurney in the government’s death chamber, a female executioner asked whether she had any last words. Montgomery responded in a quiet, muffled voice, “No,” according to a reporter who served as a media witness.
Federal judges in multiple courts had delayed her execution to allow for hearings on whether she was too mentally ill to understand her punishment and whether the government had given insufficient notice of her execution date under law.
But around midnight the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority summarily dismissed the final legal challenges, and she was put to death about 90 minutes later. Some of Stinnett’s relatives attended as witnesses but declined to speak with the media, the Justice Department said.
Montgomery’s execution was opposed by United Nations human rights experts, the European Union, several dozen former prosecutors, and multiple groups against violence to women, prompting debate over the role past trauma can play in some of the most horrific crimes prosecuted by the justice system.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the execution was “an indefensible use of government power,” coming only a week before the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, a Democrat who takes office on Jan. 20 and says he will seek to end the federal death penalty.
Nicole Austin-Hillery, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program, told Reuters the execution of Montgomery and the planned executions of two more individuals in the final days of the Trump administration “underscores the complete disregard for human rights shown throughout Donald Trump’s presidency”.
Montgomery was the 11th person on federal death row executed since the U.S. government resumed capital punishment last year under President Donald Trump, a Republican and an outspoken proponent of the death penalty. Before Trump, there had been only three federal executions since 1963.
The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady, who was sent to the gas chamber in December 1953 with her convicted accomplice, Carl Austin Hall, for kidnapping and killing the 6-year-old son of a wealthy automobile dealer.
Six months earlier, in July 1953, the U.S. government put convicted spies Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband Julius Rosenberg, to death by electrocution.
Kelley Henry, Montgomery’s lawyer, called her execution “vicious, unlawful, and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power.” Some doctors who examined Montgomery testified that her brain was structurally damaged and that she suffered from psychosis, auditory hallucinations and other mental illness, exacerbated by abuse and rapes she suffered at the hands of her mother and stepfather.
“No one can credibly dispute Mrs. Montgomery’s longstanding debilitating mental disease - diagnosed and treated for the first time by the Bureau of Prisons’ own doctors,” Henry said in a statement. “Our Constitution forbids the execution of a person who is unable to rationally understand her execution.”
Until this week, Montgomery had been held for many years at FMC Carswell in Texas, a federal hospital prison for female inmates with mental illness.
It was one of three executions the federal government had scheduled for the final full week of Trump’s administration. Two other executions scheduled for Thursday and Friday have been delayed, for now at least, by a federal judge in Washington, to allow the condemned murderers to recover from COVID-19.
Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Howard Goller and Gerry Doyle
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