Updated: 3:16 p.m. ET
Editor’s note: This story includes information that may be upsetting to some readers.
Lisa Montgomery was scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Federal Correction Complex in Terre Haute Indiana Tuesday night. In preparation, authorities transferred her on Monday from the federal women’s prison in Texas where she has been held for more than a decade. The family of the woman she murdered traveled to Indiana as well to witness Montgomery’s death.
For now that federal execution, and two others the Trump administration had scheduled for this week, are on hold. Late Monday night, a federal judge in Indiana blocked the execution to allow a hearing on whether Montgomery, 52, is too mentally ill to be executed. The Justice Department filed an appeal of that ruling with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
In a separate ruling, the U.S court of Appeals for the District of Columbia also voted to stay the execution in order to hold hearings on whether the Justice Department gave insufficient notice of Montgomery’s execution date. Those hearings could be held later in the month.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department sought to have the U.S. Supreme court vacate that effort. It filed an appeal, asking the court to immediately set aside what it called an “unwarranted obstacle” so the government could proceed as planned and carry out a legal death sentence for a “crime of staggering brutality.”
Montgomery was sentenced to death in 2008 for murdering 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Missouri. In 2004, Montgomery strangled Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, cut her fetus from the womb and tried to pass the surviving baby off as her own.
Montgomery’s attorney, Kelley Henry, says the court was right to put a stop to the execution. She says no one is excusing Montgomery’s actions, but her life provides some context. Henry says her client has brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by a lifetime of abuse including child sex trafficking, gang rape and physical abuse largely at the hands of family members.
“The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of people like Mrs. Montgomery, who due to their mental illness, do not understand the basis for their executions. Mrs. Montgomery is mentally deteriorating and we are seeking an opportunity to prove her incompetence,” Henry said in a statement.
No date has been set for the competency hearing, and the U.S. government filed briefs appealing both stays of execution. Montgomery’s lawyers have also filed a clemency petition asking President Trump to commute her sentence to life in prison.
Montgomery’s stays of execution halt what would have been the U.S. government’s first execution of a female inmate in more than 67 years.
Two other executions scheduled for later this week were halted by a federal judge on Tuesday. Cory Johnson, 52, was scheduled for execution on Thursday for his involvement in the murder of seven people nearly three decades ago. Dustin John Higgs, 55, was scheduled to be put to death on Friday for his involvement in the murder of three women nearly 20 years ago. Both have tested positive for COVID-19.
If the judge’s delay is overturned those executions could be the last to occur for the foreseeable future. Senate Democrats unveiled legislation Monday that would abolish the federal death penalty, and President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to eliminate it as well. In 2019, the Justice Department announced it would revive federal executions after a 16-year hiatus. Under the Trump administration, 10 men have been executed since July 2020.