The Corner

Politics & Policy

After ‘A Life-time of Punishment,’ a Plea to President Trump for Mercy for Lisa Montgomery

Lisa Montgomery, a federal prison inmate at the Federal Medical Center Fort Worth in an undated photograph. (Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery via Reuters)

Lisa Montgomery’s first experiences of sexual abuse occurred indirectly when she was three years old. She would lie in bed at night beside her beloved half-sister Diane, close enough to touch, while Diane, then eight, was being raped by their male babysitter.

At the age of 11, Montgomery learnt what it was like to be attacked herself. Her stepfather Jack, a “mean drunk” who regularly beat her and her mother, began raping her once or twice a week.

The assaults became such an important part of Jack’s life over the next four years that he built a room for the girl on the side of their trailer, deep in the Oklahoma woods. It had its own entrance, so that he could come and go as he desired and nobody would know or hear her screams.

He would rape and sodomise her, often with a pillow smothering her face. When she resisted, he slammed her head so hard against the concrete floor that she suffered traumatic brain injury, MRI brain scans would later show.

One day, her mother Judy happened to enter the room while the child was being assaulted by her husband. Judy was so incensed she fetched a gun and held it to her daughter’s head, screaming: “How could you do this to me?”

Over time, the abuse expanded. Montgomery’s stepfather invited friends round to gang rape her in the room – ordeals that would last for hours and end with the men urinating on her like she was trash. Her mother got in on the act too, selling Montgomery’s body to the plumber and the electrician whenever she needed odd jobs doing.

Welcome to the early years of a girl named Lisa Montgomery, as reported by The Guardian today. I’d quote a more conservative source if more of us were reporting on the case of Montgomery, the first woman set to be executed by the United States federal government a week from today.

You don’t have to oppose the death penalty to support the commutation of Lisa Montgomery’s death sentence. Her crime was heinous — as anyone who knows and loved Bobbie Jo Stinnett knows. She was 23 years old at the time of her murder. Her daughter was violently ripped from her mother, never to know her.  So, too, was Montgomery’s childhood — which included brain damage, trauma, and constant rape in her adolescence.

Her lawyers have today petitioned President Donald Trump for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. That’s not exactly a walk in the park in freedom.

Additionally, over 800 organizations and individuals, many who work with domestic-abuse victims, have written to President Trump, asking for a commutation of the federal death sentence scheduled to be carried out next Tuesday, January 12. She “has experienced a life-time of punishment and it is now time for mercy,” they write in a joint letter in support of the clemency petition.

Having a horrific childhood is not an excuse for a barbaric crime. But the barbarism she was subjected to from her earliest days obviously had something to do with how she could have committed such evil.

Just a little from the letter:

Lisa Montgomery was born with permanent brain damage as a result of her mother’s alcohol intake during pregnancy. Sexually abused by her stepfather for the first time at eleven years old, Lisa was repeatedly raped for years. Lisa’s mother beat her children brutally and emotionally tortured them, once killing the family dog in front of them. Lisa’s mother also trafficked Lisa to men for sex beginning when Lisa was in her early teens. Lisa developed dissociative disorder and complex posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the repeated anal, oral, and vaginal rapes she suffered by the men to whom her mother trafficked her. Lisa told people about her abuse, but no one intervened. School administrators knew that Lisa came to school dirty, in tattered clothes, but failed to investigate or report. At age eighteen, Lisa, at her mother’s behest, married her stepbrother, who also raped and beat her. She had four children, then was sterilized against her will—another form of violence. Her mental health continued to spiral downwards. When her ex-husband/stepbrother filed for custody of two of her children and said he would reveal her sterilization to her new husband (who believed her to be pregnant), Lisa’s history of victimization, trauma, and mental illness tipped over the edge. Threatened with the loss of the children she deeply loved, Lisa committed a horrific crime. Prosecutors in Lisa’s trial dismissed her repeated violent victimization as an “abuse excuse.” Lisa’s abuse doesn’t excuse her crime. 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.

“We urge you to have mercy and to commute her death sentence to life without the possibility of parole,” it concludes.

Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychiatrist from NYU, with an expertise in torture evaluated Montgomery in 2016 and found:

Lisa Montgomery’s life history demonstrates the tragic and devastating consequences of abuse and exploitation of children by those who should protect and nurture them. Raise within a family whose treatment of children as objects to be used in internecine family conflicts spanned multiple generations, Lisa grew up learning that she, too, was an object to be exploited and abused by her caregivers. Lisa’s childhood in which she was brutally beaten, humiliated, and ultimately raped for several years by a stepfather, created conditions for her to develop profoundly distorted perceptions of interpersonal relationships, human emotions, and even her own body.  Lisa, like many survivors of severe sexual abuse, developed a dissociative response to her feeling and body[,] states that stayed with her throughout her life. While this dissociation can protect a child, for instance from the actual sensations of a disturbing rape, it can, if required frequently enough, result in a rupture of the child’s developing sense of self, the world and relationships. Lisa’s development suffered such distortions and she grew into adulthood with a disconnected sense of her emotions, a tenuous hold on reality, a completely warped view of human relationships, and a split and damaged sense of herself and of her body. These developmental impairments had tragic consequences in this woman’s life and the life of those around her.

Again, we don’t have to agree on the death penalty to be against the federal execution of Lisa Montgomery. Sparing her life is an acknowledgement that mental illness is real, that we often fail the most vulnerable children, and that there is a place for mercy in public life.

When I wrote about her case last week, one of the responses was that she should be “put down.” A human being should not be spoken about in that way — and I know human beings do heinous things. This woman did what she did because she is extremely sick, due mainly to severe violence done to her from her earliest years. That’s not an excuse, it’s a fact.

If we are pro-life, we listen to people’s stories, and we love them. Loving justice requires that. And justice in this case is not adding violence and death to a story full of it when we know so much.

Lisa Montgomery’s death sentence should be commuted. The pardon and clemency power can be a beautiful thing. Here, it might be a little investment not only in saving a life of a woman who never had a chance, but a little investment in national healing.

I want a country that truly is the kind of place full of the civilization of love and life that John Paul II wrote about in Evangelium Vitae, a document resplendent with justice and mercy.

Update: I amended and added to this post from it’s initial posting at the prompting of a colleague who is absolutely correct.

In showing mercy to Montgomery, we should never forget the name of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, the pregnant mother she killed, and her husband, Zeb, who wound up having to raise their daughter, Victoria Jo, without his wife and her mother. The Stinnetts should be known and loved beyond the town in Missouri where they are from and Bobbie Jo. That is right and just. She lived and was brutally murdered, and that is the truth. And we should never never forget the absolutely completely innocent in wanting to be more humane in a world where evil too often destroys the lives of children. A woman was stolen from her family and this world. And that can never be undone — including by executing the mentally ill woman who killed her — and she should never be forgotten.