Warning: This story contains graphic details of sexual abuse that may be disturbing to some viewers.
After a long push by advocates and her legal team to push the White House on clemency, President Donald Trump’s ongoing “killing spree”—which he and his former Attorney General William Barr began this past summer when the Supreme Court allowed the U.S. government to resume federal executions following a nearly two-decade pause—claimed its next life: Lisa Montgomery, the only female prisoner on federal death row.
Montgomery was executed by a lethal injection early on Wednesday morning after the Supreme Court lifted a late stay. Her face mask was removed and she was asked if she had any final words, Montgomery replied, “No.” She was pronounced dead at 1.31 a.m.
For months, Montgomery’s allies had attempted to convince White House officials and Trump himself that Montgomery’s life was worth saving, and that the president should add her name to the recent raft of commutations and pardons that he has issued in the final weeks of his first, and perhaps only, term. But there was barely any movement this week, if at all, on this case in the White House Counsel’s Office and elsewhere in the West Wing, two people familiar with the matter say. The two sources, and other people briefed on the situation who spoke to The Daily Beast, believed that Montgomery had a vanishingly slim chance of receiving mercy from President Trump. It wasn’t even clear, the sources said, if the president was aware of the case, and it certainly was not a priority on his list, given the fallout from the bloody U.S. Capitol riot that Trump helped ignite last week.
Advocates for Montgomery, her family, and her lawyers say she was “profoundly mentally ill,” and had suffered a life of horrific sexual abuse and physical trauma and torture from her mother and stepfather. They argued that she absolutely did not meet the threshold of competency for lethal injection, as had been scheduled at a federal facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, early Tuesday evening. On Monday night, a federal judge in the state had issued a stay of execution, making way for a hearing regarding whether the 52-year-old inmate, and convicted killer of the pregnant victim Bobbie Jo Stinnett, was mentally fit to be put to death. The Trump Justice Department quickly appealed the ruling, as Montgomery’s attorneys braced for a legal fight through Tuesday that they knew could, even as soon as the day’s end, determine whether she lived or died this week.
And by Tuesday evening, after a flurry of appeals, the Supreme Court cleared the way for Montgomery to be executed.
Advocates said that putting off the planned execution even by just over a week could have spared her; President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to be inaugurated on Jan. 20th, opposes capital punishment and is expected to halt the executions spree once in office.
For Montgomery’s family, the wait and the uncertainty was excruciating.
“I’m not doing well at all. I am devastated that we are here right now,” Diane Mattingly, Montgomery’s sister, said while fighting back tears during a phone interview conducted roughly 24 hours before the execution. “I’m close to breaking down on this.”
Mattingly continued, “Lisa was let down by so many people. She was let down by her mother and my stepmother—a mother who was supposed to be loving and caring, and she was hateful and mean and spiteful and cruel. And then she was let down by our father. He abandoned every child that he had…and [Lisa was let down by] the police officer who she told she was being gang raped. And he dropped her off at her house and he drove away…One thing I ask of President Trump is to look at all these people: society let Lisa down…and they also let Bobbie Jo down. I’m pleading with him to, for once, be the spokesperson for society and not let Lisa down again. I am also begging for that as a survivor myself.”
Mattingly mentioned that in a clemency package that had been submitted to the White House roughly a week ago, she had written a letter to Trump, about Montgomery and their lives as siblings, and the rapes she and her sister endured. The letter highlighted Montgomery “being in the room when I was being raped,” and “everything that happened to her, and her stepfather, and him having his friends come over to gang-rape her,” including in exchange for favors such as “free plumbing.”
It is unclear if the letter ever reached Trump, or if he had seen it. Calls and messages to White House spokespeople went unreturned.
“The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst in our society. And I do not see how any person could look at this case and think that Lisa Montgomery is one of them,” said Alan Dershowitz, who served on President Trump’s legal defense during last year’s impeachment trial. Dershowitz, who was publicly supportive of granting Montgomery clemency, added, “This is a very sick woman, with a history of mental illness and abuse. Nobody is talking about letting her out on the street, because the crime was indeed horrific, but the question is: Does she qualify as one of the worst of the worst? And I would say absolutely not.”
By Tuesday afternoon, with competing appeals in several courts and eyes on the U.S. Supreme Court, individuals close to the outgoing president and the White House saw her chances as particularly grim, at least as they pertained to a commutation from Trump. The sources said that this president generally focuses on the perpetrator’s grisly crime, and is typically unmoved by a murderer’s reform behind bars, or the criminal’s harsh circumstances that led to the crime.
In 2008, Montgomery was given a death sentence for the brutal 2004 murder of the 23-year-old Stinnett; after Montgomery had strangled her, she cut out the surviving baby and attempted to claim the baby was hers. Montgomery’s legal team has insisted that their client suffered brain damage, and that her mental illness was made worse by years of extreme trauma and the appalling, recurring sexual violence she experienced.
But even if Trump were presented with these arguments, it is unlikely that he would have been moved.
Trump has privately boasted to people close to him about his revival of federal executions, and that his supposedly tough-on-crime measure during his administration will go down as part of his legacy that has brought justice and comfort to victims’ families.
As of Tuesday evening, Montgomery’s advocates were still hoping for something, or someone, to keep her alive, at least in time for a Biden administration to likely call off the execution.
“Is it going to bring Bobbie Jo back? If I could do a magic wand and bring her back, I would,” Mattingly said. “My heart breaks for that family, her friends, that community… My heart breaks for them. I am so sorry this happened. Two people have been let down because a society did not step up and get [Lisa] out of there. As an eight year old little girl, I know I was scared too. But I even let her down. Because I got out. And she did not.”
She added, “You can take two children who’ve been in horrific situations, our story shows what can happen to a child when you take her out of a horrific situation. Was it easy for me to overcome some of this stuff? It wasn’t. But I had that good foundation that I built upon. I do have a good life. I do have a wonderful relationship, and good mental health. And then you take a child who was never taken out of there and it just continued on…and she broke.”