Addendum: On January 13, 2020 Lisa Montgomery was executed by lethal injection.
Headlines screamed about a woman murdered for her almost born child. A truly horrendous end for a young woman looking forward to meeting her child. Who would do such a thing?
Lisa Montgomery was quickly found at her home, hugging the baby. She was convicted and has been awaiting execution, currently scheduled for January 12. Justice seemingly served.
A description of Lisa Montgomery’s life: brain damaged from her mother’s drinking during pregnancy, repeatedly raped by a stepfather and others, gang raped, and sexually trafficked by her mother. Child protective services had removed an older sister who had protected Lisa as best she could, but left the younger Lisa in her mother’s care. (The sister went on to lead an apparently fine life.) Lisa told at least one person, a relative and a police officer, what was happening—he deeply regrets not acting to help her. Lisa’s adult life continued the patterns of abuse. She was married off early to the first of several abusive relationships and ultimately lost custody of all her biological children, losing the last one before killing Bobbie Jo Stinnett for her baby.
Ms. Montgomery’s crime was horrific.
Ms. Montgomery’s life was horrific.
The harmful effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACES)—and Ms. Montgomery’s life is a litany of extreme ACES—are well documented. With respect to child sexual abuse in particular, studies indicate tremendous impacts on the victims: increased rates of a variety of psychiatric disorders, impacts on cognitive development, and long-term medical impacts. Extreme forms of sexual abuse—which Ms. Montgomery experienced several times over—are associated with greater rates of long-term negative outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorders and depression. Not surprisingly, Ms. Montgomery has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other conditions.
Even as a lawyer who has worked in child protection for more than 20 years, when I first read the summaries of Ms. Montgomery’s life, I was stopped short. I simply could not process how one person could hold all that trauma. Nor could I begin to conceive what the brain-damaged child Lisa learned about life, love, and personal physical boundaries as she experienced all that abuse, loss, and betrayal. Lisa’s life was simply devastating trauma upon devastating trauma. My own experience as a child sexual abuse survivor (with therapy and the healing patience and kindness of many in my adult life) simply pales in comparison.
Ms. Montgomery’s attorneys have been seeking judicial mercy, or presidential clemency, so that Ms. Montgomery is not executed. Her attorneys repeatedly have underscored that they are not seeking a pardon in the sense of an exoneration—they are simply asking that she not be executed. Many individuals and organizations support this request.
Surely society’s striking failure to prevent Lisa’s tortured childhood experiences, which are so entwined with the adult Ms. Montgomery’s crime, demands this limited mercy. Execution is not something we as a society do lightly—we have not executed a woman in 70 years. We should not do so here.
Rather, Ms. Montgomery’s case confirms the important work that child protection can but did not do here. And it calls out for pathways to more broadly reach traumatized children and adults to offer some degree of healing and to mitigate the impact of abuse.