On Monday, Lisa Montgomery who was scheduled to be executed on January 12 at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana was granted a stay by judge Patrick Hanlon in response to a petition she filed saying that she is incompetent to be executed.
In October, the US had scheduled executions of two federal inmates convicted of heinous murders. One of these was Lisa Montgomery, who would have become the first female federal inmate to be executed since 1953. The other is Brandon Bernard, convicted of killing two ministers on a military reservation in 1999. Bernard was executed on December 10.
Monday’s stay order mentions that as per evidence from expert witnesses, Montgomery’s perception of reality is distorted and that “she is currently unable to rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution”. Based on this evidence, the Court has concluded that Montgomery will be able to make a threshold showing of insanity that will require a hearing.
In addition, Montgomery’s attorneys have reported the following symptoms in her including religious delusions, hallucinations, distorted sense of reality, sleep disturbances and nightmares and auditory hallucinations among other symptoms.
The US resumed federal executions after a 17-year long pause in July 2019 when the Department of Justice directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of five death row prisoners. Executions had been stalled because federal death row inmates had challenged the legal injection protocol.
Montgomery fatally strangled a pregnant woman, cut open her body and kidnapped her baby in 2004. As part of a premeditated murder-kidnap scheme, Montgomery drove from her home in Kansas to the victim’s home in Missouri. The victim was eight months pregnant at the time and was attacked and strangled until she lost consciousness.
“Using a kitchen knife, Montgomery then cut into Stinnett’s (the victim) abdomen, causing her to regain consciousness. A struggle ensued, and Montgomery strangled Stinnett to death. Montgomery then removed the baby from Stinnett’s body, took the baby with her, and attempted to pass it off as her own,” the US Department of Justice has said.
In 2007, a US District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Montgomery guilty of federal kidnapping resulting in death and she was unanimously recommended a death sentence by the jury. Her appeals and request for collateral relief were rejected by all the courts that considered it.
Her execution by lethal injection was previously scheduled for December 8, but was delayed after her attorneys contracted COVID-19. The lethal injection uses a sedative called Pentobarbital that slows down brain activity and the nervous system.
What are federal executions?
In the United States, depending on the severity of the crime they have committed, people can either be tried at a national level in federal courts, or at a regional level in state courts.
While as many as 22 US states — including New York, Hawaii, and Minnesota — have abolished the death penalty at a regional level, it can still be awarded at a federal level in all 50 states. However, it is rarely used. At present, there are 62 inmates on federal death row, most imprisoned in the Terre Haute prison complex.
In 1972, the US Supreme Court struck down capital punishment both at the state and federal level. However, it was reinstated by Congress over a decade later, in 1988. With the passing of the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, the list of crimes that could lead to federal execution grew substantially.
Other federal executions in the US
In July 2020, 46-year-old Daniel Lewis Lee became the first federal inmate to be executed in the US in over 17 years.
Lee’s execution laid bare the ideological divide within the US’ highest court. A dissent written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the constitutionality of the methods used for executing prisoners.
Further, a stinging dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused the Supreme Court of fast-tracking the executions of death row inmates, “before any court can properly consider whether their executions are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual”.
US President Donald Trump has long been an advocate of the death penalty. In 2019, the Trump administration announced its plans to resume federal executions –– not carried out since 2003.