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Lisa Montgomery Endured Years Of Abuse. Now Her Lawyers Fight To Stop Her Execution

Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to die on Jan. 12. She faces the death penalty for one of the most heinous, and highly publicized, murders in recent Missouri history. But her lawyers point to a mountain of mitigating evidence — and a growing number of voices urging the Trump administration not to kill her in its final days in office. They’re hoping for a last-minute reprieve.

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Provided / Courtesy of Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery
Lisa Montgomery would be the first female federal inmate to die by injection since the Trump administration resurrected federal executions.

Montgomery was sentenced to death in 2007 for the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. The two women had met in a chat room for rat terrier breeders. Stinnett, who lived in Skidmore, Missouri, was eight months pregnant when Montgomery strangled her and cut her baby out of her womb. The 23-year-old’s mother found her in a pool of blood.

When law enforcement officers realized Montgomery was a possible suspect, they raced to her home in Kansas. They reportedly found her watching an Amber Alert flash on the TV screen as she held Stinnett’s newborn daughter.

After Stinnett’s death, many people questioned who could do such a thing. The answer turned out to be a very, very sick woman.

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Provided / Courtesy of Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery
Lisa Montgomery as a child.

One of Montgomery’s public defenders, Kelley Henry, explained on St. Louis on the Air that there are 16 cases in the U.S. of women who have killed pregnant mothers in order to kidnap their babies.

“These crimes are incredibly rare,” she said. “Sixteen of them have happened. Lisa Montgomery is the only one on Death Row. Because in all [other] cases, we realize if you commit a crime like this, you have to be incredibly mentally ill.”

In addition to a family history of mental illness on both sides, Montgomery endured a terrible childhood. Her mother was an alcoholic who drank throughout her pregnancy, leaving Montgomery with brain damage. Six marriages meant a string of stepfathers, one of whom raped Montgomery repeatedly. Family members testified that she also endured gang rape as a teen after her mother trafficked her.

Henry said the abuse she suffered is directly related to the psychosis that led to Stinnett’s murder. During her abusive first marriage to a stepbrother, Montgomery had four children before her mother pushed her into having a tubal ligation, which left her sterile. Even after that, she continued to claim she was pregnant.

“What she learned is that if she was pregnant, she wouldn’t be raped,” Henry explained. “And so she would say she was pregnant, and always something would happen where she would claim the baby would absorb back into her body. And yet no one called a mental health professional when they heard these stories.”

Newly married to her second husband in 2004, Montgomery again feigned pregnancy — only this time, her ex called her out on it. He threatened to use her fake claims to take custody of their children.

“She was pushed into a situation where she had to produce a baby, or in her mind — her very psychotic mind — her entire world was going to come crashing down on her,” Henry said. “And of course it did anyway.”

Montgomery was previously scheduled to be executed on Dec. 8, the first female federal inmate to die by injection since the Trump administration resurrected federal executions. Her execution date was postponed after Henry and her co-counsel on the case contracted COVID-19 while traveling to assist in her defense.

Henry said she is now largely recovered despite a relatively serious case that left her extremely fatigued and suffering from other symptoms as well. The attorneys are working on a clemency petition; their only hope is mercy from President Donald Trump — or even a slight delay. Joe Biden, who takes office Jan. 20, opposes capital punishment.

If the Trump administration goes through with Montgomery’s execution, she would be the first woman executed by the federal government since 1953.

Henry noted that, while Montgomery confided in a cousin who was a police officer during her years of abuse and torture, he never intervened. Neither did anyone else, despite a large number of people who witnessed both the beatings she endured and many signs of sexual abuse.

At one point in the year before she killed Stinnett, Montgomery reached out to get counseling. But she wasn’t able to connect with a quality provider. “In the middle of rural Kansas, when you’re poor, access to competent mental health care was just nonexistent at the time,” Henry said, “And that's one of the lessons we should take from this case, is not stigmatizing people with mental illness.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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