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Thousands Urge Commutation of Abuse Victim Lisa Montgomery's Death Row Sentence as Trump Continues Federal Executions

"Is the public really okay with a lame-duck Trump administration continuing to execute people on death row?"

Lisa Montgomery, who suffered years of sexual and physical abuse as a child as well as brain damage, is scheduled to be executed on December 8. Thousands of people including prosecutors and child advocates are calling for her sentence to be commuted. (Photo: Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide)

More than 1,000 people including child advocates, mental health experts, anti-sex trafficking and domestic violence groups, and prosecutors are calling on President Donald Trump to commute the sentence of Lisa Montgomery, who has been sentenced to face the death penalty on December 8 for a crime she committed after a lifetime of abuse. The execution would continue a slew of state-sanctioned killings by the Trump administration.

The groups sent a total of six letters to the White House on Wednesday, all outlining Montgomery's history of being born with brain damage due to her mother's excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and adult, and how the abuse caused her to develop severe mental illness. 

"Lisa Montgomery was dealt a losing hand from before her birth and now Trump is trying to trump that terrible hand with an execution in these last days of his presidency."
—Sister Helen Prejean

Montgomery's lawyer, federal public defender Amy Harwell, told HuffPost that Montgomery was "psychotic" and disconnected from reality at the time she murdered Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was pregnant, in 2004. Montgomery abducted Stinnett's unborn child and was convicted of the crime in 2007. 

At Common Dreams last month, Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, described the abuse Montgomery suffered for decades before her crime. Montgomery was raped by her stepfather repeatedly and was subjected to sex trafficking by her mother beginning in her early teens. She reported the abuse, including to a cousin who worked in law enforcement, but no one intervened. 

Her mother also physically abused Montgomery and her siblings before pressuring Montgomery to marry her stepbrother at age 18. The marriage was also abusive, and after giving birth to four children Montgomery was pressured into an involuntary sterilization procedure.

"Over the years, her mental health continued to deteriorate, and her behavior became increasingly erratic," Babcock wrote. Montgomery has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and dissociative disorder, and requires psychotropic drugs in order to function and connect with reality. 

Two prosecutors who have tried cases involving women who violently attacked pregnant women are among those who wrote a letter to the president on Wednesday, saying that the case "does not warrant the death penalty."

"We know from first-hand experience that these crimes are inevitably the product of serious mental illness," wrote (pdf) Harry Zimmerman, a former deputy district attorney in New Mexico, and Stanley Garnett, a former district attorney in Colorado. "Women who commit such crimes also are likely to have been victimized themselves. These are important factors that make death sentences inappropriate."

Zimmerman and Garrett noted that Montgomery has expressed remorse for her crime and that she offered during her trial to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole. 

"Given the overwhelming evidence of her mental illness and trauma history along with the particularly traumatic nature of this type of crime for the victim’s family, the federal prosecutors should have exercised their discretion to accept Ms. Montgomery's plea offer," the prosecutors wrote. 

The attorneys were joined by more than 40 other prosecutors in calling for the commutation of Montgomery's sentence, as well as more than 800 women's rights groups, anti-domestic violence organizations, and survivors, who in a separate letter (pdf) denounced prosecutors in Montgomery's case for dismissing her history of severe trauma and mental illness as an "abuse excuse."

"Lisa's abuse doesn't excuse her crime," wrote the groups, including the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the Legal Aid Society, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. "But it does provide an explanation for how she came to commit that crime, a context for trying to understand what otherwise might seem incomprehensible. A victim of trauma with serious mental health issues, including dissociative disorder directly linked to her experiences of sexual violence, Lisa's mental illness is inextricable from the crime she committed."

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Forty advocates for abused and victimized children wrote that multiple authority figures, including a judge and social services workers, declined to intervene on Montgomery's behalf when her abuse was taking place.

"A victim of trauma with serious mental health issues, including dissociative disorder directly linked to her experiences of sexual violence, Lisa's mental illness is inextricable from the crime she committed."
—800 anti-domestic violence groups

"We know from our work with children that being unable to escape a cycle of abuse exacts a terrible mental toll," the groups wrote. "This was sadly true for Lisa. Her crime reflected the desperation, shame, and hopelessness that many victims of extreme child abuse feel. We are therefore unsurprised that mental health experts have concluded that Lisa's crime was a direct consequence of her years of trauma and resulting mental illness."

"In light of her history, we believe that Lisa is deserving of mercy, which you alone have the power to grant," they wrote to the president.

HuffPost reporter Melissa Jeltsen noted that President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to take office just over a month after Montgomery is scheduled to be executed, has pledged to end the federal death penalty.

Anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean also called on Trump to commute Montgomery's sentence this week.

"Lisa Montgomery was dealt a losing hand from before her birth and now Trump is trying to trump that terrible hand with an execution in these last days of his presidency," wrote Prejean.

In addition to the letters sent to the president on Wednesday, more than 2,200 have signed a petition created by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, demanding a stay of execution at minimum.  

Death Penalty Action also urged the public to sign a petition telling Congress to end all federal executions. 

If Montgomery's execution—or two others scheduled for Orlando Hall on November 19 or Brandon Bernard on December 10—are carried out, the group noted, "federal executions under Trump will surpass President Truman's seven in his entire two terms in office, and tie Eisenhower's eight executions over his eight years."

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