U.S. schedules first execution of a woman in nearly 70 years

If Montgomery is executed, her death will be the first federal execution of a woman since 1953.

This undated image provided by Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery shows Lisa Montgomery, who is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 8, 2020, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind. Montgomery was convicted of fatally strangling a pregnant woman, cutting her body open and kidnapping her baby.
This undated image provided by Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery shows Lisa Montgomery, who is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 8, 2020, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind. Montgomery was convicted of fatally strangling a pregnant woman, cutting her body open and kidnapping her baby. –(Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery via AP)

A date has been set for the execution of a Kansas woman who was convicted of killing a pregnant woman and cutting the baby from her abdomen in what would be the first federal execution of a woman in nearly 70 years, officials said Friday.

The inmate, Lisa Montgomery of Melvern, Kansas, was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death by a jury in federal court in Missouri in 2008. Her death, by lethal injection, is scheduled for Dec. 8 at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Federal executions have not taken place in nearly 20 years, but Montgomery’s would be the ninth federal execution since they resumed in July.

Advertisement

In 2004, Montgomery told her friends and family that she was pregnant, despite having undergone a sterilization procedure years earlier, according to court documents.

In December of that year, she contacted Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was 23 and eight months pregnant, under the guise of wanting to buy a rat terrier puppy from a litter that Stinnett had advertised online, court records show.

Montgomery, who was 36 at the time, drove to Stinnett’s home in northwestern Missouri, where she strangled her to death and cut the baby girl from her abdomen. Montgomery then went home and attempted to pass the baby off as her own.

Montgomery, who confessed to the crime, lost all attempts to appeal her conviction and sentence, according to the Department of Justice.

Kelley Henry, an assistant federal public defender representing Montgomery, said in a statement Friday that Montgomery has accepted responsibility for her crime, “but her severe mental illness and the devastating impacts of her childhood trauma make executing her a profound injustice.”

Henry said that abuses Montgomery endured as a child, including being sex-trafficked by her mother and gang-raped by adult men, “exacerbated a genetic predisposition to mental illness inherited from both sides of her family,” including complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Advertisement

“Few human beings have lived through the kind of torture and trauma that was inflicted on Lisa Montgomery by her mentally ill, alcoholic mother,” Henry said.

If Montgomery is executed, her death will be the first federal execution of a woman since 1953, when Bonnie Heady was killed in a gas chamber for the kidnapping and murder of a 6-year-old boy in Kansas City, Missouri.

Heady, with assistance from her accomplice Carl Hall, took the boy from school, held him for ransom and killed him. She was the first woman executed for kidnapping, according to reports at the time.

That same year, Ethel Rosenberg was sent to the electric chair after she was convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Rosenberg and her husband Julius were found guilty of stealing secrets from the U.S.’ atomic bomb project to aid the Soviet Union.

Only around 2% of inmates on death row and 1% of those executed are women, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In April, there were more than 50 women on state and federal death rows, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Statistically, the violent crimes women commit are less likely to be considered for capital punishment than those committed by men, because of both the nature of the crimes and public perceptions of gender, Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Saturday.

Most murders committed by women are domestic murders, which are often considered acts of passion and not eligible for the death penalty, Dunham said. Jurors sometimes subconsciously take into account stereotypical views of women, including that they are less violent and pose less of a future threat to society.

Advertisement

“The sense is that a woman is going to commit acts of violence only in extreme circumstances of extreme emotional stress or acting out of extreme mental illness,” Dunham said, noting that prosecutors who seek death penalties for women are often perceived as “bloodthirsty.”

In cases of women on trial for murder, prosecutors often attempt to portray women as “deviant” and not meeting traditional gender roles, and they tend to blame them for their own abuse or mental illness, he said.

Execution of women is rare. Since 1632, there have been 575 documented executions of women of the more than 15,000 confirmed executions in the United States, according to the Espy File, a database of executions in the United States and the earlier colonies.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972, arguing that it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” then reversed its decision four years later, 16 women in death rows across the country have been executed.

Among them was Aileen Wuornos, a hitchhiking prostitute who killed six men along Florida highways. Wuornos initially claimed the killings were in self-defense after she was assaulted by clients but later told officials she did them intentionally. She was executed in Florida in 2002.

Last year, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Justice Department would resume executions of federal inmates sentenced to death, using a single drug, pentobarbital, after several botched executions by lethal injection renewed scrutiny of capital punishment.

The Department of Justice also on Friday scheduled the execution for Brandon Bernard, who was found guilty of the murders of two youth ministers in Texas in 1999.

Christopher Andre Vialva, another man convicted in the same killing, was executed last month.

Get Boston.com's browser alerts:

Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.

Turn on notifications

Great, you’re signed up!

Jump To Comments
Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com


Close

Get the latest breaking news sent directly to your phone. Download our free app.