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Will Lisa Montgomery Die Tonight? Sister Helen Prejean Calls for Trump to Halt Execution Spree

StoryJanuary 12, 2021
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A federal judge has granted a stay of execution for Lisa Montgomery, who was set to become the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years, but the Trump administration is appealing the decision. Two men are also scheduled to die this week. Since July, when the Trump administration revived the federal death penalty, the U.S. government has executed 10 people — more than in any presidency since 1896. “Time is running out for the Trump administration to go through with these three executions, and they know that, which is why they’re very insistent that they happen this week and not after January 20,” says Isaac Arnsdorf, a reporter at ProPublica. We also speak with Sister Helen Prejean, Catholic nun and one of the world’s leading death penalty opponents, who says Trump embarked on his late killing spree simply because “he has the power to do it.” “The death penalty needs to be abolished completely, and you have to take the power out of individuals’ hands,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Four former corrections officers from Indiana have issued a letter urging U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to postpone the three federal executions scheduled for this week, citing safety concerns due to COVID-19. The letter, released alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, says executions at the federal prison in Terre Haute have led to a spike in coronavirus cases among prisoners and staff. Two men scheduled for execution Thursday and Friday — Dustin Higgs and Cory Johnson — recently contracted COVID-19. A joint appeal, now pending, argues it would be cruel and unusual punishment to execute them while they’re still recovering.

This comes as a federal judge in Indiana issued a stay of tonight’s scheduled execution of Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row. The government has already appealed the ruling. In a separate ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has also issued a stay. The government has not yet appealed that ruling at the time of our broadcast.

The Trump administration revived the federal death penalty last year. Before then, there had not been a single federal execution since 2003, in almost 20 years. Since July, the federal government has executed 10 people — more than in any presidency since 1896, in more than 120 years. Government lawyers argue they cannot wait to conduct the executions, because of the inconvenience of rescheduling the private contractors that carry it out would, quote, “irreparably harm” the government, more than the prisoners would be irreparably harmed by dying.

If tonight’s execution proceeds, Lisa Montgomery would become the first woman put to death by the federal government in almost 70 years. She was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of a pregnant woman named Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Her lawyers argue that sexual abuse during her childhood led to mental illness. In November, attorney and advocate Sandra Babcock described the horrific childhood Montgomery suffered. A warning: Her answer is disturbing and graphic.

SANDRA BABCOCK: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of Lisa Montgomery’s execution, her sister, Diane Mattingly, begged for mercy. She, too, is a survivor of sexual abuse herself and described how the trauma they endured as children impacted them in their adult lives.

DIANE MATTINGLY: People have to understand that children that go through childhood abuse, it changes who they are. I went through that, and it took me years and years to overcome it, but I also had a good foundation that helped me overcome it. Lisa did not have that foundation, and she was broken. So, please understand that. … Now because of COVID-19 — I had a visit scheduled for last week — I couldn’t go. I have another visit scheduled this week. I probably won’t be able to go. I won’t be able to see my sister, someone that I’ve loved since she was just a little itty-bitty baby, that I love today. But I won’t be able to see her.

AMY GOODMAN: So there are now two court orders blocking tonight’s execution of Lisa Montgomery, but, as our next guest has reported, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority cleared the way to proceed in the middle of the night for other executions by the Trump administration.

We go to D.C., where we’re joined by Isaac Arnsdorf, reporter at ProPublica, whose investigative report is titled “Inside Trump and Barr’s Last-Minute Killing Spree.” Also with us from New Orleans is the well-known anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean.

Isaac, we’re going to begin with you. What is the latest in Lisa Montgomery’s case? Is she expected to be executed tonight, or will these stays hold? If she isn’t, it could well be she won’t die, because Joe Biden is against the federal death penalty.

ISAAC ARNSDORF: That’s right. Time is running out for the Trump administration to go through with these three executions, and they know that, which is why they’re very insistent that they happen this week and not after January 20th. And all indications are that they are going to do everything they can to do them this week.

You know, I’m not going to — I can’t predict what the Supreme Court will do. All I can tell you is that the situation that we’re in today is very similar to a number of the previous executions, where on the day of the execution there were court orders in place blocking them, and on appeal to the Supreme Court, in the middle of the night, after 2 a.m., the Supreme Court lifted those stays, and within a few hours the prisoners were dead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Sister Helen Prejean and ask you — there were five federal executions scheduled this lame-duck period, breaking precedent from the past 130 years. Could you contextualize for us what’s happening, why the Trump administration is doing this?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: The root reason why Trump is doing this is simply because he has the power to do it. Executions, whether at the state level or the federal level, do not happen unless a prosecutor deliberately seeks death and seeks it all the way to the end. Trump has had the power all along. For some reason, he decides, starting in July, to start killing people. And for him, it’s just like knocking cans off a fence: “Let’s choose this one, this one, this one and this one.”

It just goes to show why we cannot — why the death penalty needs to be abolished completely. And you have to take the power out of individuals’ hands to kill each other or not. It is the position, now arrived at after a lot of dialogue in the Catholic Church, that under no circumstances can governments be entrusted with this power over life and death.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you wrote, in a recent article in The Washington Post, an op-ed piece, that 80% of Americans approved the death penalty back in 1993, but just 36% favored a life sentence — but 36% favored a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty by 2019. What’s contributed to this change in public views on the death penalty?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Education, education, education, persuasion, giving people facts, telling them, bringing them as witnesses, like myself who’s witnessed six executions, bringing them inside the killing chambers and telling them stories. Like, look at the Lisa Montgomery story — unspeakable crime, killing a pregnant woman and cutting the baby out. What could be worse than that? But then telling the whole story of the person.

So, when I wrote Dead Man Walking, and it came out in '93, I think fully 90% in the Southern state of Louisiana supported the death penalty. So what do you do? You get out on the road, you go into churches, you go into civic groups, you go into schools, and you start talking to people. And you just say, “Let me take you close to this.” You know, I have been really heartened by the response of people, both to my book and to my lectures. And most of them say, “I didn't know it was like this.”

They were made to be afraid. In the '80s, when we had the killing spree, we killed eight people in eight-and-a-half weeks in Louisiana. And when the people are made to be afraid, then the people tend to go for violence, for force, to end a social problem. And they were told, “These people are the worst of the worst. These people are evil. These people can't change. We can’t put them in prison even for a life sentence, because they’ll kill other inmates. It’s their nature, their character.” And they were made to be afraid.

When people then can be educated, and especially now seeing that 172 wrongfully convicted people have come off of death row, that we’re making mistakes right and left, mainly because 99% of the people chosen for the death penalty are poor and can’t get a really crackerjack of defense — so, truth doesn’t come out at trial, make mistakes, 172. This is astounding. For every nine executions we’ve had in the United States, of the 1,500-plus, execution by gassing people, shooting them, lethally injecting them — for every nine executions, we’ve had to free one person. One in nine. That’s how big the mistake rate is. Who would book an airline where they’re going to tell you when you buy the ticket, “OK, you’ve got a one-in-nine chance of reaching your destination”?

And that’s impacted — the American people are good people. When they’re made to be afraid and they can’t witness directly what’s going on — there have been two court cases trying to make executions public, and they’ve both been defeated. It’s a secret ritual. See, we all could witness the violence of what happened inside the Congress when the insurrection happened. We saw what happened with the guards being brought down to the floor and beat and stabbed and pummeled with the American flag and other. We saw. When you see the violence, you can be aghast at it. You can go, “No!” But when you don’t see it, see — when Lisa is killed, if she’s killed tonight, nobody is going to witness that. It’s going to be inside, behind prison walls.

AMY GOODMAN: I —

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: There’s a saying — and I’ll just finish right on this — in Latin America: “What the eye does not see, the heart cannot feel.” My job is to bring people inside the execution chambers and to give them facts about the death penalty. Education is what changes minds and hearts.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to put this question to Isaac Arnsdorf. When federal authorities used pentobarbital to execute Alfred Bourgeois last month, on December 11th, he appeared to gasp for breath for nearly 28 minutes. Public radio reporter George Hale witnessed the execution and said it, quote, “didn’t go well” and took “almost twice as long as it took to kill Brandon Bernard one day earlier.” Hale shared his notes from that night about watching Bourgeois’s torso. They read, quote, “not natural movement,” “stomach rising,” “stomach heaving,” “stomach popping up,” “heaving inside,” “sucking inside middle,” “still heaving.” Hale tweeted, quote, “If Alfred Bourgeois was suffering that night, he suffered for a long time.” Can you talk about the significance of this and the battle of the Trump administration to get any drug possible and to expand the realm of killings to firing squad and poison gas if they can’t get the drug?

ISAAC ARNSDORF: Well, the reason that it took the Trump administration until the fourth year of the administration to restart these executions was because it needed to find a new drug that it could use in the lethal injections. And the previous drug became unavailable because of public pressure on the manufacturer to stop making it. So the administration is very jealously guarding the identity of its vendor. It’s actually using what’s called a compounding pharmacy, which kind of remixes a custom version of the drug. And that raises some concerns, because, actually, the first batch of the drug failed a quality test from an independent lab. And so what the government did was took it to a different lab.

But what you described at the Bourgeois killing, according to — the Bourgeois execution, according to his lawyers and the lawyers for several of the other prisoners, the experience of lethal injection with this drug, which is a very powerful sedative, they have medical experts to testify that it is comparable to death by drowning, so a very painful and terrifying death. Now, the government has argued in response with its own medical experts testifying that they think that the prisoners would be unconscious during this process so that they would not feel the pain. And this, in particular, an issue for —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

ISAAC ARNSDORF: — the executions scheduled on Thursday and Friday for two prisoners who, according to their lawyers, have lung damage from COVID-19.

AMY GOODMAN: Isaac Arnsdorf, we’re going to link to your remarkable pieces at ProPublica. And, Sister Helen Prejean, thank you so much, world-renowned anti-death-penalty activist. That does it for our show. Remember, wearing a mask is an act of love. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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