But neither should she be executed. The federal government should stop its execution spree and reinstate a death-penalty moratorium.
Among the loose ends the Trump administration is trying to tie up this month are the executions of three federal prisoners. This will bring the total number of executions overseen by Trump’s Justice Department to 13, the highest number in one administration in more than a century. A disproportionate amount of the protest has been focused on the execution of Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
The gender gap in death sentencing, in part explained by the gender gap in violent crime, is not one that anyone would particularly like to see close. As it stands, the criminal-justice system shows greater leniency to women at almost every stage in the legal process, from arrests to sentencing. You have to do something chillingly awful to be sentenced to death as a woman. And Montgomery surely qualifies.
Bobbie Jo Stinnett was a 23-year-old wife and mother to be when Montgomery hatched an evil plot to brutally murder her and abduct her unborn child. Stinnett and her husband were dog breeders in Skidmore, Mo. She was eight months pregnant when Montgomery contacted her online, claiming to be a woman named “Darlene Fischer” who was also pregnant and interested in buying a terrier. Montgomery researched how to perform a cesarean section, packed a rope and knife, drove 350 miles to Stinnett’s home, strangled her to death, ripped her premature baby from her womb, and left her mangled and bloody corpse to be discovered by her mother. She then took the baby girl, who survived, back to Kansas to pass off as her own daughter.
Montgomery was tried under the Federal Kidnapping Act and convicted of “kidnapping resulting in death.” The jury heard evidence of how she had been subject to terrible abuse as a child: She was prostituted by her mother and raped and sodomized by her stepfather, and then, after giving birth to four children, was sterilized against her will. Defense attorneys tried to argue that Montgomery was suffering from pseudocyesis and was in a dissociative state at the time of the murder. Campaigners who seek to have her sentence commuted are currently attempting to make a similar argument, appealing to her mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. But a forensic psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution debunked this theory at trial, and the jury decided that while Montgomery may have been a victim of severe childhood abuse, she was not out of her mind when she killed Stinnett. On the contrary, she had meticulously planned and carried out the murder with a particular motive in mind. She was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Montgomery’s offense is just as heinous as that of Bonnie Brown Heady, the last woman to be executed by the federal government. In late September 1953, Heady and her boyfriend, Carl Hall, dug a small shallow grave before she headed to a convent school, where she tricked an elderly nun into thinking that she was six-year-old Bobby Greenlease’s aunt. Greenlease was the son of a multi-millionaire car-dealership magnate. Having no intention of returning him alive, the pair murdered him and extorted one of the biggest ransoms in U.S. history from his parents. Heady, like Montgomery, had also had a difficult life. John Heidenry, who wrote a book about the Greenlease case, has called her “a victim of sorts. . . . She was a victim of drink, she was a victim of circumstances and bad men.”
Women make up less than 20 percent of arrests for almost all crimes, except prostitution. In 2019, there were more than seven times as many men convicted of murder as women — and of those women who were convicted of murder, a significant portion were convicted of killing their abusers. If society is more likely to see female criminals as victims, that is because they often are. But an explanation is not an excuse. And a victim in one context can be a villain in another. Whatever horrible mistreatment they’d suffered in their lives, Montgomery wanted a baby and Heady wanted money. Both proved themselves to be highly manipulative, taking advantage of the greater sympathy and trust that women are often afforded by society in order to deceive and cause the death of a vulnerable innocent. Why should they be allowed to play the courts the way they played their victims?
The interventions on Montgomery’s behalf are understandable in that they are designed to preserve her life. It is a very serious thing for the state to carry out executions when it has other means of implementing justice. Ultimately, the Trump administration’s overuse of the death penalty is politically foolish and morally untenable. People such as Montgomery should be locked up forever, not least because doing so allows the public to save its compassion for those who deserve it: their victims’ families. But no one should make the Montgomerys of the world poster children for the anti-capital-punishment movement. Activists against the death penalty have a strong enough case as it is; they don’t need to diminish the perpetrators’ responsibility for such horrific crimes to effectively make their point.