Barring another hopelessly inept coup attempt, this afternoon the forty-sixth President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden Jr will assume the reigns of power. His election came as a huge relief to millions of people around the world, myself included. The outgoing President Trump has presided over four years of turmoil, myriad shady dealings and ended in a deadly invasion of the Capitol by his supporters, gleefully encouraged by Trump, his family and his sycophantic allies. Under him, America has become a far more divided nation and its standing on the world stage has been greatly diminished. Trump’s final legacy remains unclear, and its pages in future history books will be written by those far more learned than I. However, at least one thing is known. The Trump administration announced in July 2019 it would resume executing federal inmates after a twenty-year hiatus. Thirteen of those inmates were executed between July 2020 and the present day. Each case raised extremely troubling questions on an individual basis and collectively they represent a dread-inducing killing spree ordered by a man devoid of both humanity and decency. Whilst researching this piece, I came across a photo of a gurney in an execution chamber. An odd quirk of the human mind is that when faced with a sight representing such horror, it will often focus on a seemingly minor detail. I noticed the pillow-a bizarre concession to human dignity and comfort, obscenely incongruous with an often-torturous, always premeditated, death at the hands of the government. It was on a pillow like this that Lisa Montgomery rested her head when she was put to death on January 13th, and for me her case is the most concerning of them all.
On January 16th 2004 Bobbie Jo Stinnet was found murdered in her home in Skidmore, Missouri. She was eight months pregnant at the time; she had been strangled and her unborn daughter cut from her womb with a knife. Stinnet had been married for just over a year and ran a dog-breeding business, ‘Happy Haven Rat Terriers’ from home with her husband Zeb. She had met Lisa Montgomery at various local dog shows and the pair had also interacted online via a terrier-specific chatroom, ‘Ratter Chatter.’ Montgomery had told Stinnet that she too was pregnant and the two women exchanged emails.
On the day of the murder, Stinnet was expecting a buyer, ‘Darlene Fischer,’ for one of her dogs. She was found an hour after her death lying in a pool of blood by her mother, Becky Harper, who immediately contacted authorities, telling them her daughter looked like ‘her stomach had exploded.’ Paramedics were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts to revive Stinnet, who was pronounced dead at St Francis Hospital, Maryville. The following day, police arrested Montgomery at her home in Melvern, Kansas. She claimed the newborn found in her arms was hers, although this was soon established to be false and baby Victoria Jo Stinnet was returned to her father, Zeb. Montgomery’s quick capture, and the safe return of little Victoria, was credited to forensic computer investigation and an AMBER alert, the first time such an alert was put out for an unborn baby. Montgomery confessed to the murder and kidnapping almost immediately. She was charged with ‘kidnapping resulting in death,’ a crime established by the Federal Kidnapping Act 1932, making her eligible for the death penalty.
She was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 2007. Her defense was led by one Frederick Duchardt, an attorney with a chequered record to say the very least. Out of seven federal death trials in which he’d acted for the defense, four of his clients were given the death penalty, two were given life sentences and one was acquitted following a retrial. This resulted in Duchardt having the dubious honor of having more client in receipt of the death penalty in federal court than any other lawyer in America. Lisa Montgomery never stood a chance.
Death penalty trials in the USA are often split into two phases; the ‘guilt phase’ during which the jury decides whether or not to convict the defendant, and the ‘penalty phase,’ when the jury decides on punishment. Often, in capital cases where the jury is inclined to show mercy, it is because that during the penalty phase lawyers have shown that their clients either suffered an especially abusive childhood or they had a mental illness or intellectual impairment. Montgomery squarely checked all three boxes. The Supreme Court has set binding precedents dictating that under those circumstances, mercy should be shown. This is often achieved by employing ‘mitigation specialists;’ people whose sole job it is to interview people close to the defendant to establish whether such a history might exist, then sourcing any documentation required to substantiate those claims. Americas National Judicial Conference proclaimed in 1998 that all capital defense teams should employ such specialists, and this was followed in 2003 by the American Bar Association who made it mandatory to include them. Duchardt chose not to when defending Montgomery.
Instead he decided to focus on obtaining a ‘not guilty’ verdict at trial. He visited Montgomery only three times prior to court, and when he established she had a deep mistrust of men he sent his wife Ryland in his stead to ‘build a rapport.’ Ryland, it should be noted, had no relevant legal experience whatsoever. Duchardt’s first approach was to suggest that it was in fact Montgomery’s brother Tommy who had murdered Stinnet before handing the baby to his sister. He discovered this was unviable just a week before the trial when it became apparent Tommy had an unimpeachable alibi; he was with his probation officer at the time of the murder. He hurt Montgomery’s cause by going down this route. It led to her family, who might otherwise have been an excellent source of mitigation, becoming uncooperative as they felt Montgomery had attempted to throw her brother under the bus. Next, Duchardt attempted to achieve a ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ verdict. He posited that Montgomery suffered from pseudocyesis, in which a woman falsely believes she is pregnant, often displaying physical symptoms associated with pregnancy. The prosecution succeeded in barring this line of defense from being heard by the jury on the grounds that it had no scientific basis. Montgomery never stood a chance.
Neither the defense nor the prosecution bothered to investigate Montgomery’s childhood or psychiatric record prior to trial. If they had, it may have taken a very different course. As part of the appeals process, her new (and infinitely more competent) lawyers undertook an exhaustive examination of Montgomery’s social history. They discovered an appalling catalogue of abuse, torture and gross dereliction of duty by the numerous authorities who were well aware of what Montgomery was suffering. This suffering began when Montgomery was still in the womb. Her mother (and rarely was a woman more undeserving of that moniker) Judy Shaughnessy drank heavily during her pregnancy. Numerous specialists have since confirmed that Montgomery probably suffered from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Her stepfather was a violent alcoholic who constructed a shed for the specific purpose of giving him and his friends a place in which to beat, sodomise and rape Montgomery. They would finish the abuse by urinating on her. Whenever she refused to comply, he would smash her head against the concrete floor so hard she suffered repeated traumatic brain injuries. He also built a room on the side of the trailer where they lived in which he could further perpetrate his abuse of Montgomery. He drilled a hole in the closet door and would constantly observe her through it. Eventually she found a tiny section of the room where she could be free from his gaze and spent hours curled up there. Shaughnessy trafficked her daughter, allowing tradesmen to abuse her in exchange for free work on their home.
Then the lawyers detailed the long line of people in positions of authority who knew what Montgomery was experiencing yet did nothing to help her. During her teens, she informed her police officer cousin of the abuse. Rather than helping her as he should have done, he drove her straight back home to her abusers. Then there was the judge who presided over her mother’s divorce. Both Shaughnessy and Montgomery gave testimony regarding the rapes. Whilst the judge chided Shaughnessy for not reporting the abuse, he himself did nothing to stop it. Nor did the child welfare officer whom Shaughnessy told about the rapes. Nor did the doctor who examined Montgomery. And nor did the social workers, who visited the family once during Montgomery’s childhood, informing the parents of their attendance beforehand.
Like many victims of child abuse, Montgomery was desperate to escape using any means necessary. At the age of eighteen, she married her stepbrother. Tragically, life with him was little better than it had been with her parents. They had four children in five years, and he too had an unpleasant, aggressive nature. Montgomery’s brother recalled finding a home movie of this first husband beating and raping her. In due course they divorced and Montgomery married Kevin Montgomery. During this period, she repeatedly claimed to be pregnant despite the fact that she had been permanently sterilized following the birth of her fourth child. It appears she feared that her ex-husband, described as harassing and cruel, would expose her lies in a bid to obtain custody of their children. Unsurprisingly, this litany ofunspeakable abuse and cruelty at the hands of people who should have loved and protected her left Montgomery with a lengthy list of psychological and neurological problems. Asides from the aforementioned Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and traumatic brain injuries, Montgomery has also been diagnosed with CPTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, psychosis, depression, memory loss and disassociation.
This is the woman a lame-duck, single-term, twice-impeached president was so desperate to execute. Her lawyers implored Trump to grant her clemency. He declined, instead preferring to pardon war criminals and his cronies. With Trump, everything is about his ego. He insists he is a president of ‘law and order,’ yet there is no credible evidence whatsoever that applying the death penalty makes society any safer. There are indeed many effective methods proven to reduce crime, such as stricter alcohol policies, eliminating blighted housing, raising the age or grade required to drop out of school and community policing, but none of those things allow Trump to engage in his beloved metaphorical dick-waving. He’s also motivated by spite. No one can say he took his loss of the 2020 election with good grace, and he is fully aware that Biden wants to abolish the death penalty at both federal and state levels. Commenting on the spate of executions, supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor said ‘To put that in historical context, the federal government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades. There can be no ‘justice on the fly’ in matters of life and death. Yet the court has allowed the United States to execute 13 people in six months under a statutory scheme and regulatory protocol that have received inadequate scrutiny, without resolving the serious claims the condemned individuals raised.’
None of this is to say that Lisa Montgomery’s crime was not horrific; it was, and Bobbie Jo Stinnet should be here today, enjoying the family she was so excited to have and the business that brought her so much joy. But, trite as it is, executing Lisa has not brought Bobbie back. It has just left those who did care for her bereft. No one was suggesting she should be set free, but that she should have spent her days in prison receiving the psychiatric treatment she should have, and could have, been given long before that dreadful day in 2004. There were many, many opportunities to save Lisa, and the powers-that-be who failed to do so are just as culpable in the murder of Bobbie Jo as Lisa is, if not more so. Crimes such as this one hold up a mirror to society, and in this case America looks very ugly indeed.