Jan 12, 2021 7:00 AM

The Latest: Kansas woman's execution on hold

Posted Jan 12, 2021 7:00 AM
Montgomery is being held at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, according to online jail records.
Montgomery is being held at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, according to online jail records.

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The U.S. government’s plans to carry out its first execution of a female inmate in nearly seven decades are on hold, and two other executions set for later this week have been halted because the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.

The executions were to be the last before President-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of the federal death penalty, is sworn-in next week. Lisa Montgomery faced execution Tuesday for killing a pregnant woman and cutting the baby from her womb in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in 2004.

But an appeals court granted a stay of execution Tuesday. That came shortly after another appeals court lifted an Indiana judge’s ruling that found she likely couldn’t comprehend she'd be put to death.

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A judge has temporarily stopped the U.S. government’s plans Tuesday to carry out the first federal execution of a female inmate in nearly seven decades, finding that the Kansas woman who killed an expectant mother, cut the baby from her womb and tried to pass off the newborn as her own was likely mentally ill and couldn’t comprehend she would be put to death.

When other executions by the Trump administration were similarly stayed in days or even hours before the scheduled execution times last year, the Department of Justice succeeded in getting a higher court to reverse them. Government lawyers also quickly appealed the stay issued Monday for Lisa Montgomery.

Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby girl from the womb with a kitchen knife. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own.

A federal judge in southwestern Indiana handed down the order Monday less than 24 hours before the 52-year-old Montgomery, the only female on federal death row, was set to be executed at a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Any delay of Montgomery’s execution beyond Joe Biden’s inauguration next Tuesday would likely mean she will not be executed since a Biden administration is expected to oppose carrying out of federal death sentences.

One of Montgomery’s lawyers, Kelley Henry, told The Associated Press Tuesday morning that her client arrived at the Terre Haute facility late Monday night from a Texas prison and that, because there are no facilities for female inmates, she was being kept in a cell in the execution-chamber building itself.

“I don’t believe she has any rational comprehension of what’s going on at all,” Henry said.

Montgomery has done needle-point in prison, making gloves, hats and other knitted items as gifts for her lawyers and others, Henry said. She hasn’t been able to continue that hobby or read since her glasses were taken away from her out of concern she could commit suicide.

“All of her coping mechanisms were taken away from her when they locked her down” in October when she was informed she had an execution date, Henry said.

Montgomery’s legal team says she suffered “sexual torture,” including gang rapes, as a child, permanently scarring her emotionally and exacerbating mental-health issues that ran in her family.

At trial, prosecutors accused Montgomery of faking mental illness, noting that her killing of Stinnett was premeditated and included meticulous planning, including online research on how to perform a C-section.

Henry balked at that idea, citing extensive testing and brain scans that supported the diagnosis of mental illness.

“You can’t fake brain scans that show the brain damage,” she said.

Henry said the issue at the core of the legal arguments are not whether she knew the killing was wrong in 2004 but whether she fully grasps why she is slated to be executed now.

In his ruling on a stay, U.S. District Judge James Patrick Hanlon in Terre Haute cited defense experts who alleged Montgomery suffered from depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Montgomery, the judge wrote, also suffered around the time of the killing from an extremely rare condition called pseudocyesis in which a woman’s false belief she is pregnant triggers hormonal and physical changes as if she was actually pregnant.

Montgomery also experiences delusions and hallucinations, believing God spoke with her through connect-the-dot puzzles, the judge said, citing defense experts.

“The record before the Court contains ample evidence that Ms. Montgomery’s current mental state is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution,” the judge’ said.

The government has acknowledged Montgomery’s mental issues but disputes that she can’t comprehend that she is scheduled for execution for killing another person because of them.

Details of the crime at times left jurors in tears during her trial.

Prosecutors told the jury Montgomery drove about 170 miles (274 kilometers) from her Melvern, Kansas, farmhouse to the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy from Stinnett. She strangled Stinnett performing a crude cesarean and fleeing with the baby.

Prosecutors said Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from her womb. Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up in the parking lot of a Long John Silver’s in Topeka, Kansas, telling him she had delivered the baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing center.

Montgomery was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, who is now 16 years old and hasn’t spoken publicly about the tragedy.

Prosecutors said the motive was that Montgomery’s ex-husband knew she had undergone a tubal ligation that made her sterile and planned to reveal she was lying about being pregnant in an effort to get custody of two of their four children. Needing a baby before a fast-approaching court date, Montgomery turned her focus on Stinnett, whom she had met at dog shows.

The U.S. has executed 10 people at Terre Haute since the resumption of federal executions after a 17-year pause started on July 14. Anti-death penalty groups said President Donald Trump was pushing for executions prior to the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.

The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady on Dec. 18, 1953, for the kidnapping and murder of a 6-year-old boy in Missouri.

The last woman executed by a state was Kelly Gissendaner, 47, on Sept. 30, 2015, in Georgia. She was convicted of murder in the 1997 slaying of her husband after she conspired with her lover, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death.

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MISSION, Kan. (AP) — A judge has granted a stay in what was slated to be the U.S. government’s first execution of a female inmate in nearly seven decades — a Kansas woman who killed an expectant mother in Missouri, cut the baby from her womb and passed off the newborn as her own.

Judge Patrick Hanlon granted the stay late Monday, citing the need to determine Montgomery’s mental competence. Lisa Montgomery faced execution Tuesday at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, just eight days before President-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of the federal death penalty, takes office.

Montgomery drove about 170 miles from her Melvern, Kansas, farmhouse to the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy from Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old dog breeder. She strangled Stinnett with a rope before performing a crude cesarean and fleeing with the baby.

She was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, who is now 16 years old and hasn’t spoken publicly about the tragedy.

“As we walked across the threshold our Amber Alert was scrolling across the TV at that very moment,” recalled Randy Strong, who was part of the northwest Missouri major case squad at the time.

He looked to his right and saw Montgomery holding the newborn and was awash in relief when she handed her over to law enforcement. The preceding hours had been a blur in which he photographed Stinnett’s body and spent a sleepless night looking for clues — unsure of whether the baby was dead or alive and no idea what she looked like.

But then tips began arriving about Montgomery, who had a history of faking pregnancies and suddenly had a baby. Strong, now the sheriff of Nodaway County, where the killing happened, hopped in an unmarked car with another officer. He learned while en route that the email address [email protected] that was used to set up the deadly meeting with Stinnett had been sent from a dial-up connection at Montgomery’s home.

“I absolutely knew I was walking into the killer’s home,” recalled Strong, saying rat terriers ran around his feet as he approached her house. Like Stinnett, Montgomery also raised rat terriers.

Bobbie Jo Stinnett’s mother, Becky Harper, sobbed as she told a Missouri dispatcher about stumbling across her daughter in a pool of blood, her womb slashed open and the child she had been carrying missing.

“It’s like she exploded or something,” Harper told the dispatcher on Dec. 16, 2004, during the desperate yet futile attempt to get help for her daughter.

Prosecutors said her motive was that Stinnett’s ex-husband knew she had undergone a tubal ligation that made her sterile and planned to reveal she was lying about being pregnant in an effort to get custody of two of their four children. Needing a baby before a fast-approaching court date, Montgomery turned her focus on Stinnett, whom she had met at dog shows.

Montgomery’s lawyers, though, have argued that sexual abuse during Montgomery’s childhood led to mental illness. Attorney Kelley Henry spoke in favor of Monday’s decision, saying in a statement to the Capital-Journal that “Mrs. Montgomery has brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers.”

Her stepfather denied the sexual abuse in videotaped testimony and said he didn’t have a good memory when confronted with a transcript of a divorce proceeding in which he admitted some physical abuse. Her mother testified that she never filed a police complaint because he had threatened her and her children.

But the jurors who heard the case, some crying through the gruesome testimony, disregarded the defense in convicting her of kidnapping resulting in death.

Prosecutors argued that Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from her womb. Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up in the parking lot of a Long John Silver’s in Topeka, Kansas, telling him she had delivered the baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing center.

She eventually confessed, and the rope and bloody knife used to kill Stinnett were found in her car. A search of her computer showed she used it to research caesareans and order a birthing kit.

Stinnett’s husband, Zeb, told jurors his world “crashed to an end” when he learned his wife was dead. He said he didn’t return for months to the couple’s home in Skidmore, a small farming community that earlier gained notoriety after the 1981 slaying of town bully Ken Rex McElroy in front of a crowd of people who refused to implicate the killer or killers. That crime was chronicled in a book, “In Broad Daylight,” as well as a TV movie, the film “Without Mercy” and the miniseries “No One Saw a Thing.”

Recently, on Victoria Jo’s birthday, he sent Strong, the sheriff, a message through Facebook Messenger thanking him.

“I just wept,” Strong recalled. “He is going to constantly be reminded of this whether in his nightmares or somebody is going to call and want to interview him. The family doesn’t want to be interviewed. They want to be left alone. The community of Skidmore has had a troubling past and history. They didn’t want this. They didn’t deserve this.”

Montgomery originally was scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 8. But the execution was temporarily blocked after her attorneys contracted the coronavirus visiting her in prison.

The resumption of federal executions after a 17-year pause started on July 14. Anti-death penalty groups said President Donald Trump was pushing for executions prior to the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.

U.S. officials have portrayed the executions as bringing long-delayed justice for victims and their families.

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MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Becky Harper sobbed as she spoke to a Missouri dispatcher after stumbling across her expectant daughter in a pool of blood, her womb slashed open and the child she had been carrying missing.

“It’s like she exploded or something,” Harper told the dispatcher on Dec. 16, 2004, during the desperate yet futile attempt to get help for her daughter, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who had been eight months pregnant.

Lisa Montgomery, who strangled Stinnett with a rope before performing a crude cesarean and fleeing with the baby, awaits execution Tuesday, just eight days before the presidential inauguration of death penalty opponent Joe Biden. If the lethal injection is carried out as scheduled at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, Montgomery would be the first woman executed by the federal government in about six decades.

Montgomery drove about 170 miles from her Melvern, Kansas, farmhouse to the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy from Stinnett, a 23-year-old dog breeder.

She was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, as her own. She is now 16 years old and hasn’t spoken publicly about about the tragedy.

“As we walked across the threshold our Amber Alert was scrolling across the TV at that very moment,” recalled Randy Strong, who was part of the northwest Missouri major case squad at the time.

He looked to his right and saw Montgomery holding the newborn and was awash in relief when she handed her over to law enforcement. The preceding hours had been a blur in which he photographed Stinnett’s body and spent a sleepless night looking for clues — unsure of whether the baby was dead or alive and no idea what she looked like.

But then tips began arriving about Montgomery, who had a history of faking pregnancies and suddenly had a baby. Strong, now the sheriff of Nodaway County, where the killing happened, hopped in an unmarked car with another officer. He learned while en route that the email address [email protected] that was used to set up the deadly meeting with Stinnett had been sent from a dial-up connection at Montgomery’s home.

“I absolutely knew I was walking into the killer’s home,” recalled Strong, saying rat terriers ran around his feet as he approached her house. Like Stinnett, Montgomery also raised rat terriers.

Prosecutors said her motive was that her ex-husband knew she had undergone a tubal ligation that made her sterile and planned to reveal she was lying about being pregnant in an effort to get custody of two of their four children. Needing a baby before a fast-approaching court date, Montgomery turned her focus on Stinnett, whom she had met at dog shows.

Montgomery’s lawyers, though, have argued that sexual abuse during Montgomery’s childhood led to mental illness. Her stepfather denied the sexual abuse in videotaped testimony and said he didn’t have a good memory when confronted with a transcript of a divorce proceeding in which he admitted some physical abuse. Her mother testified that she never filed a police complaint because he had threatened her and her children.

But the jurors who heard the case, some crying through the gruesome testimony, disregarded the defense in convicting her of kidnapping resulting in death.

Prosecutors argued that Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from her womb. Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up in the parking lot of a Long John Silver’s in Topeka, Kansas, telling him she had delivered the baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing center.

She eventually confessed, and the rope and bloody knife used to kill Stinnett were found in her car. A search of her computer showed she used it to research caesareans and order a birthing kit.

Stinnett’s husband, Zeb, told jurors his world “crashed to an end” when he learned his wife was dead. He said he didn’t return for months to the couple’s home in Skidmore, a small farming community that earlier gained notoriety after the 1981 slaying of town bully Ken Rex McElroy in front of a crowd of people who refused to implicate the killer or killers. That crime was chronicled in a book, “In Broad Daylight,” as well as a TV movie, the film “Without Mercy” and the miniseries “No One Saw a Thing.”

Recently, on Victoria Jo’s birthday, he sent Strong, the sheriff, a message through Facebook Messenger thanking him.

“I just wept,” Strong recalled. “He is going to constantly be reminded of this whether in his nightmares or somebody is going to call and want to interview him. The family doesn’t want to be interviewed. They want to be left alone. The community of Skidmore has had a troubling past and history. They didn’t want this. They didn’t deserve this.”

Montgomery originally was scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 8. But the execution was temporarily blocked after her attorneys contracted the coronavirus visiting her in prison.

The resumption of federal executions after a 17-year pause started on July 14. Anti-death penalty groups said President Donald Trump was pushing for executions prior to the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.

U.S. officials have portrayed the executions as bringing long-delayed justice for victims and their families.