By all accounts, Lisa Montgomery, who is slated to be executed by the Trump administration and the Federal Bureau of Prisons on January 12, lived a life full of almost unimaginable horror and cruelty—her mother severely abused her as a child, and then later in her life and beginning in her childhood, her stepfather as well as his friends would rape Montgomery repeatedly. Her first husband—her stepbrother via one of her mother’s husbands—would reportedly go on to rape and beat her as well.
Montgomery received the death penalty in 2007, when she was convicted of a terrible crime, one which she admitted to committing: At the end of 2004, she killed a woman named Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was pregnant, and then cut her open and took her baby, who survived.
Barring intervention from Donald Trump, Montgomery will be executed in January. But her legal team has tried to argue that based on the severe physical and sexual abuse that Montgomery endured and the resulting effects of that on her mental health, as well as the terrible legal defense she received at the time of her trial, that Montgomery should receive clemency.
Montgomery’s legal defense at the time never brought up Montgomery’s horrific history of abuse at the hands of her family. Via Slate:
Unable to afford a lawyer, Montgomery was appointed Judy Clarke, a California attorney who specialized in death penalty cases involving severely mentally ill people who had committed particularly heinous crimes. Clarke’s goal was not to absolve Montgomery of Stinnett’s murder but to make the jury understand the decades of abuse that had brought her to commit it. This approach is common in capital cases, in which the Supreme Court allows defense attorneys to present a much broader swath of evidence than in a typical homicide case—any mitigating factors that could move a jury to recommend a life sentence rather than execution. But that strategy was soon derailed by David Owen, a high ranking Missouri federal public defender who had been appointed to lead Montgomery’s legal team, though he had never tried a capital case.
Owen controlled the purse strings and refused to approve funding for resources to help Clarke dig up information about Montgomery’s life. After Clarke advised him that this was detrimental to the case, Owen went to the judge and accused her of being “abusive beyond reasonability” and said that he would not work with her, according to court records. The judge, Gary Fenner, then removed Clarke from the case in 2006, about a year-and-a-half before the trial.
And her subsequent attorneys were no better. Again, via Slate:
Fenner appointed Kansas City attorney Fred Duchardt to replace Clarke. Duchardt was also well-known for his performance in the courtroom, but for a different reason. In 2016, the Guardian profiled Duchardt as “the lawyer who keeps losing,” detailing his unorthodox approaches to capital cases, including his disdain for mitigation specialists. He routinely either didn’t hire or use these investigators to dig up information about a client’s life to convince the jury to show mercy. Of the seven people put on federal death row from the Western District of Missouri, four were represented by Duchardt. (Duchardt declined to be interviewed for this story, referring Slate to an affidavit and testimony he’s given as part of Montgomery’s appeals.)
Rather than prepare a case about Montgomery’s traumatic life, Duchardt began developing a defense that Montgomery was not guilty because she was legally insane. This hinged on the claim that Montgomery was suffering from a rare condition called pseudocyesis that caused her to believe she was pregnant and thought that Stinnett’s baby was hers.
At the 2007 trial, Duchardt and his team’s evidence was unconvincing—Montgomery did not fit the criteria for pseudocyesis—and government prosecutors eviscerated the long-shot insanity defense. The situation did not improve in the sentencing phase. Mattingly and the other witnesses who were supposed to tell the jury of the abuse Montgomery experienced had not been prepared before they took the stand, and their testimony fell flat. Before the jury left to contemplate whether Montgomery would live or die, a prosecutor told members that she was “wicked and evil,” and she was using “the abuse excuse” instead of taking responsibility for the crime.
As Rachel Louise Snyder wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, Montgomery “was sentenced to death because her trial lawyers, uninformed about gender violence, didn’t seem to understand how to defend her.” Snyder added, “Her trial lawyers did not adequately explain the insidious ways sexual and domestic violence alters one’s very neurology, behavior and sense of self,” noting that “one expert witness for the government even described the rapes by Ms. Montgomery’s stepfather as consensual.”
To Sandra Babcock, a Cornell University law professor and the founder of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, Montgomery’s case, as she put it to Snyder, “is all about gender.” “Prosecutors have a set playbook in capital cases involving women,” Babcock said to Snyder. “They condemn women who are bad mothers, or who don’t fit an idealized version of femininity.” She added, “Were it not for her being a woman, she would not be on death row, because she wouldn’t be subjected to the kind of torture that she was.”