The crime for which Lisa Montgomery was sentenced to death is about as horrific as one can imagine.
In December 2004, she strangled a pregnant dog breeder, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, having pretended to be interested in buying one of her puppies, and used a kitchen knife to cut her baby out of her belly, whom she then passed off as her own.
Montgomery had told friends and family she was pregnant, but was arrested a day later and the baby girl was returned alive and healthy to the victim’s husband.
One might well conclude that no woman in her right mind would do this and that she was surely deeply disturbed. However, a Missouri jury rejected compelling evidence that Montgomery was profoundly mentally ill after an appalling life in which she had been the victim of incest, gang rape, child prostitution and forcible sterilisation imposed on her by her husband who was also her step-brother.
As a result, she was found criminally culpable and sentenced to death.
Trump (pictured) has scheduled more executions than any president for at least a century, after reinstating the death penalty in July. His administration has already carried out more than double the number of executions America had seen over the previous three decades
Her execution was delayed when one of her lawyers contracted Covid-19, but she is now due — on January 12 — to become the first woman in 67 years to be put to death by the federal justice system as one of the final acts of President Donald Trump.
Those opposed to capital punishment contend that she has been ultimately doomed not by the evidence of her case but by the sadistic determination of Donald Trump to execute as many people on Death Row as possible while he’s still president.
She’s not alone. Four other prisoners had been lined up for execution during the last days of the presidency — two of them have now been put to death — in what critics have called a ‘Death Row killing spree’.
Last Friday, child killer Alfred Bourgeois became the tenth inmate of 2020 to be executed by the federal government — Montgomery is due to be the 11th — since the Trump administration ended a 17-year hiatus on executions earlier this year.
An administration which has insisted it stands for law and order is doing all it can to bring ‘justice to victims of the most horrific crimes’ before Joe Biden, who has pledged to attempt to phase out capital punishment, takes over the reins on January 20.
In December 2004, Lisa Montgomery strangled a pregnant dog breeder, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, having pretended to be interested in buying one of her puppies, and used a kitchen knife to cut her baby out of her belly, whom she then passed off as her own
Trump has scheduled more executions than any president for at least a century, after reinstating the death penalty in July. His administration has already carried out more than double the number of executions America had seen over the previous three decades.
Not only that, in the last weeks of his presidency, Trump’s administration is encouraging officials to use execution methods that are widely condemned as barbaric.
His Justice Department recently published new rules expanding permissible execution methods to include electrocution, poison gas, hanging and even death by firing squad if lethal injection is unfeasible or the necessary drugs are not available.
The wording also suggests that if the state where the crime was committed does not have the death penalty, a judge can designate another state to carry out the execution.
So many of Trump’s boasts — from his ‘record’ inauguration crowd to his ‘record’ economy — have proved to be hollow, but he looks certain to enter the record books for the number of executions he can pack into his last months in office.
Most presidents spend this time finding people to pardon, but Trump — determined to execute ten people in a year, more than any president in this or the last century — seems set on doing the opposite.
When convicted killer Orlando Hall was executed last month, it was the first federal execution during a ‘transition period’ between one president and the next since 1889.
As an 18-year-old gang member involved in a double killing in Texas in 1999, Brandon Bernard was one of the youngest people to ever receive the federal death sentence, carried out last week
But it’s clearly a policy that appeals to Trump’s base, who have never wavered in their support of the ultimate sanction, prompting accusations that he has used inmates’ lives as a political football.
While only a little more than half of U.S. states still have the death penalty on their statute books, far fewer than that actually make much use of it. Yet Trump’s Justice Department can order the execution of those convicted of what are considered federal crimes anywhere in the U.S. (Lisa Montgomery was, for example, convicted of ‘kidnapping resulting in death’, a specifically federal offence).
The final five on his death list
With Lisa Montgomery, four others are, or were, due for execution before Trump goes. The death penalty is meant to be reserved for the ‘worst of the worst’. But are they?
As an 18-year-old gang member involved in a double killing in Texas in 1999, Brandon Bernard was one of the youngest people to ever receive the federal death sentence, carried out last week.
Dustin Higgs, 48, found guilty by a Maryland court in 2000 of kidnap and murder of three women, although his accomplice pulled the trigger. Scheduled for execution on January 15.
Cory Johnson, 45, convicted in 1993 of murdering seven people who fell foul of his Virginia drugs gang. The victims of his 45-day killing spree included suspected informants, rival dealers and people deemed to have insulted gang members. One victim was stabbed 85 times, another shot 16 times. His lawyers argue Johnson must be spared because he is intellectually disabled, related to abuse and neglect he experienced as a child. Scheduled to be executed on January 14.
Alfred Bourgeois, 56, convicted in Texas of killing his two-year-old daughter in 2002. The court heard the lorry driver sexually abused and tortured her before slamming her head into the window of his cab. His lawyers cited his low IQ as evidence he is ‘intellectually disabled’, making his execution unconstitutional. Before he died by lethal injection on Friday, he insisted he was innocent and asked God to forgive those who ‘planted false evidence’.
There are currently 52 offenders on federal Death Row, most of them at Terre Haute, Indiana.
Like the states, the federal system’s preferred execution method is lethal injection, usually by a dose of a cocktail of drugs that first sedates the prisoner and then stops the heart.
Lethal injections started to replace the electric chair in the 1980s in order to bring executions into line with the U.S. Constitution’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, just as ‘The Chair’ had replaced hanging at the end of the 19th-century.
However, a spate of cases of condemned prisoners apparently suffering in agony after being injected prompted the drugs’ makers to refuse to supply them and juries to be more hesitant about demanding the death penalty.
The Trump administration has tried to get round drug shortages by using a single one — pentobarbital, a widely available sedative often used to euthanise pets — for executions.
Not everyone is convinced this is a suitable method, however. Lawyers say it can bring on a respiratory condition known as flash pulmonary edema, in which fluid quickly floods the lungs.
Whatever the public’s misgivings about pentobarbital, they’re nothing on the widespread disgust among activists that the U.S. may now, once again, shoot, hang or electrocute people.
Nine states still authorise the electric chair as an execution alternative, 11 permit lethal gas, while three have hanging and three have death by firing squad on their books.
Death penalty experts say that given the locations of the current inmates of federal Death Row, the most likely of these gruesome alternatives to end up being used would be electrocution, as 17 prisoners committed their offences in states that have it as a back-up execution method. Lethal gas would be the next most likely.
Oklahoma is the only firing squad state with prisoners on federal Death Row but it’s a last resort there, only to be used after the three other options have been ruled out.
The U.S. remains the only country in the world to use the electric chair, but Tennessee is the only state that still uses ‘Old Sparky’ regularly.
Since 2018, five men have died there, strapped to a wooden chair, a metal skullcap-shaped electrode covering the head and another electrode attached to an ankle. They are then given two lengthy jolts of 1,750 volts.
Although death should be instantaneous, it is a notoriously grisly spectacle — sometimes with flames several feet long leaping from the condemned man’s mask-covered head as his over-heating body swells and turns bright red. Experts say it isn’t painless, chiefly because the current sends the muscles into uncontrollable and agonising spasms.
The firing-squad method started to be used in the mid-19th century.
Cory Johnson, 45, convicted in 1993 of murdering seven people who fell foul of his Virginia drugs gang. The victims of his 45-day killing spree included suspected informants, rival dealers and people deemed to have insulted gang members
Dustin Higgs, 48, found guilty by a Maryland court in 2000 of kidnap and murder of three women, although his accomplice pulled the trigger. Scheduled for execution on January 15
The convicted person is usually hooded and strapped to a chair, with a white cloth pinned over the heart which either five or eight riflemen must shoot at simultaneously.
Up to three of the squad will be firing blanks so that none of them can be certain they discharged the fatal bullet.
Lethal gas, allegedly a humane method, was first adopted by Nevada in 1922 and last used in 1999. The prisoner is seated inside an airtight room and hydrogen cyanide gas is pumped in.
Again, unconsciousness and death should be painless, but witnesses have reported seeing eyes popping and skin turning purple.
A recent variant — nitrogen asphyxiation (basically depriving the body of oxygen) has been championed by three states as possibly the most painless execution method, but it’s too early to say whether it might replace injections.
Opponents of capital punishment, who say that more than 70 per cent of the world’s countries have abolished the practice — including every close ally of the U.S. — had hoped America might soon follow suit. But it certainly won’t while Trump is in the White House.
Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, says of the President’s grim last hurrah: ‘It’s a pretty gruesome way to go out.’
Alfred Bourgeois, 56, convicted in Texas of killing his two-year-old daughter in 2002. The court heard the lorry driver sexually abused and tortured her before slamming her head into the window of his cab
Trump’s enthusiasm for capital punishment is hardly new, going back at least as far as 1989, when five young black and Latino men were arrested for the vicious rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park.
Mr Trump paid for a full-page advert in the New York Times that demanded ‘Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!’ In the event, the five served their prison sentences only to be exonerated after a fellow inmate confessed.
Trump rarely mentioned capital punishment during his 2016 election campaign, but he has since called for the death penalty for child molesters and even Afghan veteran Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in 2009 after deserting his post and held for five years before being released as part of a prisoner exchange.
Although 54 per cent of Americans still believe that capital punishment is morally acceptable, that number is shrinking amid a string of overturned convictions and botched lethal injection executions.
The number of executions across the U.S. fell in 2016 to its lowest for 25 years. Some formerly notorious ‘hang ’em high’ states haven’t carried out a death sentence for decades.
As in the UK, scientific advances such as DNA analysis have fuelled this hesitancy by overturning wrongful convictions. Since 1973, some 172 people who were put on Death Row have been exonerated and freed.
It’s been noted that even Joe Biden, who has pledged to end capital punishment at the federal level and try to persuade states to take it off their own statute books, was proudly ‘tough on crime’ back in the 1990s.
And even Barack Obama failed to live up to his pledge to make generous use of the president’s power to pardon criminals.
Now Death Row inmates may be desperately hoping they can hold on for a few days until the Democrats once again get into the White House.