- Sandra Babcockclinical law professor at Cornell University and founder of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.
We look at one of the most shocking cases in the slew of federal executions the Trump administration has scheduled in its final months: Lisa Montgomery, who was convicted in 2007 for a gruesome murder of a pregnant woman, is set be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in 70 years, if her January 12 execution goes forward. Advocates say Montgomery suffers from mental illnesses caused by a life of abuse and sexual assault, and that she deserves clemency. “She is profoundly mentally ill,” Cornell law professor Sandra Babcock says. “Why the rush to execute someone like Lisa Montgomery, among all of these other people? That, to me, illustrates the brutality that we are witnessing right now.”
More from this Interview
- Part 1: Firing Squads, Poison Gas, Electric Chair: Trump Moves to Expand Ways to Kill Prisoners
- Part 2: Trump Races to Kill Lisa Montgomery in First Federal Execution of a Woman in Almost 70 Years
- Part 3: The Lame-Duck Executioner: Trump Prepares to Execute Five Prisoners in Closing Days of Presidency
AMY GOODMAN: Sandra Babcock, if you can also respond to the Trump administration quietly attempting to expand the ways they can kill prisoners to poison gas, electrocution and firing squad?
SANDRA BABCOCK: You know, it is a paroxysm of violence that we’re seeing right now. And one of the things that is so hard to digest is that the people that they are choosing to subject to these methods of execution are not, as Sister Helen just said, the worst of the worst; they are the most broken of the broken.
And Lisa Montgomery is a good example of that. She is somebody the federal government intends to execute on January 12th. And she was a victim of incest, of gang rape, of child sex trafficking, of unimaginable violence for her entire life, before she committed the crime for which she was sentenced to death. She is profoundly mentally ill. She began to dissociate when she was a teenager, when her stepfather built her a special room off the side of their trailer so he and his buddies could go in and rape her. Her mother sold her to the plumber and to the electrician, told her that she had to earn her keep. And so she obtained services after these men raped Lisa. And Lisa was left, from these experiences, as somebody who has the most fragile grip on reality, because she had to escape from her reality in order to survive.
This is the kind of person that William Barr intends to put to death in January. Why the rush to execute someone like Lisa Montgomery, among all of these other people? That, to me, illustrates the brutality of what we are witnessing right now.
AMY GOODMAN: And this would be the first woman executed in 70 years, the examples of her own life history not brought up at the trial. Why?
SANDRA BABCOCK: Well, they weren’t brought up because she was represented by a male defense team that had never been trained and didn’t know how to interview a woman. She was left curled in a fetal position on the floor of her prison cell during one of the interviews — a couple of the interviews that her male lawyer conducted with her. And so the jury never heard about the scope of her abuse or the impact that it had.
And the prosecutors trivialized it. They called it the “abuse excuse.” This is not an excuse. Anyone who has been the victim of sexual violence and the kind of sexual torture that Lisa Montgomery endured knows that this is not something that can be trivialized. This has lifelong consequences. And for Lisa, it meant that she is somebody who is broken. She is the most broken of the broken. She is somebody who has a very difficult time understanding what is real and what is not, because of what she endured.
And so, the people who were supposed to defend her did not do their job, and as a result, she is now scheduled to be executed at a time — for a crime that no other woman has ever been executed for in this entire country. We know that there are at least 16 women who have committed very similar crimes, and prosecutors in those cases recognized that these are crimes that are the product of trauma and mental illness. But the federal government, under Alberto Gonzales, decided that they were going to seek the death penalty in this case. She really is unique, and she really is not the kind of person the death penalty was intended for.
AMY GOODMAN: Even former prosecutors are saying she should not be put to death.
SANDRA BABCOCK: That’s right. There’s a number of former prosecutors have come forward, former sex crimes prosecutors, people who have tried to put away the criminals who raped Lisa. And no one ever intervened to help Lisa. Her sister was taken out of the home, but Lisa was left there. And that’s why —
AMY GOODMAN: Let me read the letter sent to President Trump by more than 40 current and former prosecutors in support of Lisa Montgomery. They write, quote, “Our experience prosecuting human traffickers and those who commit sex crimes against children has given us a unique understanding of the profound physical and psychological harm that victims like Lisa suffer. In this case, mental health professionals have concluded that the sexual violence and cruelty she suffered was directly related to the crime she committed. They have also diagnosed Lisa with organic brain damage and serious mental illness that requires her to be heavily medicated at all times. A history of being victimized is not an 'abuse excuse' as the jury was told at her trial. We view this kind of evidence as critically relevant to determining the appropriate punishment for a serious crime.” Again, that was a letter written by former prosecutors.
SANDRA BABCOCK: That’s right. And there was also a letter from two prosecutors who had prosecuted women for virtually identical crimes, who also said these are crimes that are committed by women who are profoundly mentally ill, and we recognize that, and that’s why we did not seek the death penalty in those cases. So, this is a really different case, Amy. We don’t see these kinds of people coming out and calling for commutation, calling for mercy. We don’t see anti-violence activists, the people who have spent their entire lifetimes combating domestic violence committed against women, child sex trafficking, the kind of people who have spent their lives fighting against child sex traffickers, are coming out, because these are the people who know what damage this does to a child and to a person who has survived this. It is lifelong trauma that cannot be overcome without the kind of counseling that Lisa Montgomery never received.
And she is now very mentally ill. Her mental illness is controlled by a complex regimen of antipsychotic medication. But since she learned of her execution date, her mental health is deteriorating daily. They took away her underwear after she was told that she had an execution date, which for a trauma survivor of sexual violence, somebody who was a victim of sexual violence, put her over the edge.
She has been told that she’s going to be transferred to an all-male prison, where she will be executed there. She cannot even be in a room with a man without breaking out into hives, and they intend to transfer her to an all-male prison. That in itself is torture. Even setting aside the government’s plans to subject people to poison gas, even if you take Lisa Montgomery to an all-male prison to subject her to lethal injection, that is torture. This woman has been tortured her entire life. And all that we are asking for is that her sentence be commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, she was sentenced after the killing of, and convicted of, a 23-year-old eight-month-pregnant woman. And explain what she did.
SANDRA BABCOCK: So, she killed Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a woman who was pregnant. And this came after Lisa herself had been subjected to a coerced sterilization procedure by her stepbrother, whom she had married at her mother’s instigation. And she was pressured into this sterilization when she was very mentally ill. After that happened, her mental illness became worse and worse, until she was completely psychotic. And in the grips of this psychosis, she befriended Bobby Jo Stinnett. She killed her. She carved the fetus out of the woman’s abdomen, and she took it home and pretended that it was her own child, and cared for the fetus — cared for the baby as if it were her own baby.
This is the kind of crime that is so unbelievably tragic, and nothing that I’m saying diminishes that tragedy. But we have to understand that a crime like this cannot be separated from Lisa Montgomery’s experiences as a profoundly mentally ill person who was involuntarily sterilized and who was brutalized for her entire life. This is not an “abuse excuse,” as the prosecutors said; this is an explanation. This helps us to understand why she did what she did. And again, we’re not asking that she not be punished. We are saying that this is not the kind of person who should be exterminated from the human race.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. I want to thank Sandra Babcock for joining us, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. And we’ll continue with Sister Helen Prejean. We’ll be looking at the four other executions that are scheduled. Again, five executions scheduled in the lame-duck period between presidencies. The last time this happened was over a century ago. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Lisa’s Song” by Veronica Cinibulk about Lisa Montgomery, who is facing federal execution on January 12th. The execution was put off because her lawyers had COVID.