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Montgomery as a child. Photo: Counsel for Lisa Montgomery/Getty Images
Montgomery as a child. Photo: Counsel for Lisa Montgomery/Getty Images

The case of Lisa Montgomery falls on deaf ears in the White House

The death row inmate’s tale is much more than the murder she is set to be executed for. 

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Editor’s Note: This article describes incidences of domestic abuse and may be triggering to some readers.

Too often, the justice system fails to recognize the severity of mental illness and how it can lead to violent crime, and many individuals meet a heart-wrenching fate that they may not truly deserve as a result. 

This is the case for 52-year-old Lisa Montgomery, the only woman currently on federal death row, scheduled for execution in Indiana on Jan. 12. 

Montgomery is pleading with President Trump to grant her clemency and stop her pending execution. 

What was the crime?

In December 2004, Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the fetus from the womb with a kitchen knife, authorities said. Montgomery then took the baby girl with her and attempted to pass her off as her own daughter.

As can be imagined, Montgomery herself is a victim of violence. She was subjected to incest, child sex trafficking, gang rape, physical abuse and neglect, largely at the hands of her own family members. 

Her doctors have also reported brain damage that was present at birth and multiple traumatic brain injuries that her attorneys allege “have resulted in incurable and significant psychiatric disabilities.” 

Overlooked trauma

Children develop 85% of their core brain structure by the time they are five years old, according to the Rauch Foundation

Babies and toddlers are like sponges, absorbing everything around them, and cementing these messages into their minds. 

Instead of building a strong foundation of protection, love and stability, Montgomery came into the world with congenital brain damage due to her mother drinking during pregnancy, and was sexually assaulted by her father as a child. 

After her parents’ divorce, her mother trafficked her to adult men, and abused her and her sister in every possible way. Montgomery did try to seek help by reaching out to a cousin, who is a police officer, but ultimately nothing came of it. 

Child psychologist, Katherine Porterfield, who specializes in survivors of torture, spent many hours with Montgomery over 18 days as part of an appeals process in 2016. 

“We need to understand what could lead to someone being so profoundly disconnected from their actions that they would be capable of doing something that a normal healthy person would find unimaginable,” Porterfield explained. 

Trauma manifests differently in each person, and some are able to develop remarkable resilience and lead relatively healthy and normal lives, but only with the proper access to resources like coping skills, therapy and medication, all of which Montgomery did not receive. 

What is her legal team hoping for?

Attorney Meaghan VerGow has asked President Trump to commute Montgomery’s sentence to life without possibility of release. 

“Given everything we know about Lisa Montgomery’s mental illness, her lifetime of horrific torture and trauma, and the many people in positions of authority who could have intervened to save her but never did, there can be no principled reason to carry out her execution,” she said in a statement

The crime was gruesome, but the fact that Montgomery is sentenced to death demonstrates a systemic failure. 

Instead of acknowledging her as a victim of childhood trauma who experienced deep emotional pain and delusional thinking, federal prosecutors brushed off her life story as an “abuse excuse” and told the jury it was of no importance. 

In her clemency petition, her attorneys clarified that Montgomery’s punishment should not cease, but that her execution should be halted. 

“We do not make excuses for her actions. Everything about this case is overwhelmingly sad. It is easy to call Mrs. Montgomery evil and a monster, and the Government has,” they said. “She is neither.”

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