Before Leaving Power, Trump Administration Fights for 1st Execution of a US Woman in Decades
U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., December 23, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
A legal battle raged Tuesday to decide the fate of a US woman that the government of Donald Trump intends to execute before leaving power, despite doubts about her mental state.
If the Republican president's administration wins, Lisa Montgomery, 52, will receive a lethal injection Tuesday night in Terre Haute, Indiana, and become the first woman to be executed by federal authorities since 1953.
If the government fails, she may escape execution, as President-elect Joe Biden, who will be sworn in on January 20, is an opponent of capital punishment and has promised reforms.
Montgomery's lawyers do not deny the seriousness of her crime: in 2004, she killed a pregnant woman in order to steal her baby.
Unable to have a child, Montgomery carefully identified her victim -- 23-year-old dog breeder Bobbie Jo Stinnett -- online.
Under the guise of buying a puppy, Montgomery went to Stinnett's home, where she strangled her to death and cut the baby from her body. She left Stinnett dead in a pool of blood.
In 2007, she was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death and handed a death sentence.
But her defenders believe that she suffers from severe mental health issues, stemming from abuse she suffered as a child. According to them, she does not understand the meaning of her sentence, a prerequisite for execution.
On Monday evening, a federal judge granted the defense a victory, ordering a stay of execution to allow time to assess Montgomery's mental state.
"The record before the Court contains ample evidence that Ms. Montgomery's current mental state is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government's rationale for her execution," the ruling stated.
But an appeals court overturned the decision on Tuesday, leaving it up to the US Supreme Court to decide.
The Justice Department has complained that Montgomery's appeal was not launched before January 8. "She thereby sandbagged the government and the courts by undermining the government’s ability to comprehensively demonstrate, at the last minute, that the hundreds of pages of materials she proffered with her petition do not make any threshold showing of her incompetence," her lawyers wrote.
Trump, like his many of his conservative constituents, is a strong supporter of the death penalty and has ignored a plea for clemency from Montgomery's supporters.
Despite the decline of capital punishment in the US and around the world, Trump's administration resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus and has been carrying them out at an unprecedented rate ever since.
Since the summer, 10 Americans have died by lethal injection in Terre Haute. In addition to Montgomery, two men are scheduled for federal execution this week. Their executions were stayed on Tuesday due to them having Covid-19.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin on Monday announced the introduction of legislation to end federal executions. It could be passed once Biden takes office next week and Democrats regain control of the Senate.
In a scathing statement, Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun known for her activism against the death penalty, spoke over the weekend of federal prosecutors "working all day and through the nights" to counter the appeals of federal inmates.
"You may not have to see the fear or smell the sweat in the execution chamber, but your hand is in this," Prejean wrote, urging them to "just say 'no' this week to working to get one woman and two men executed the week before the Inauguration" of Biden.
Former guards of the penitentiary in Terre Haute have written to the Justice Department to request that the executions be postponed until the penitentiary staff are vaccinated against Covid-19.
Between the executioners, guards, witnesses, and lawyers, an execution assembles dozens of people in a closed environment, which is conducive to the spread of the virus.
US states, including the deeply conservative Texas, have suspended executions for months due to the pandemic -- unlike the federal government, which has pushed to carry out many before Trump leaves power.