A federal judge is temporarily blocking the federal government’s plan to execute the first inmate sentenced to death in nearly six decades after her lawyers contracted the coronavirus visiting her in prison.
The order, issued yesterday by US District Judge Randolph Moss in Washington, prohibits the Federal Bureau of Prisons from carrying out the execution of Lisa Montgomery before the end of the year.
She was scheduled to be executed on December 8 at the Terre Haute, Indiana federal prison complex.
Montgomery’s attorneys had tried to delay the execution to file a clemency petition on his behalf.
Attorneys Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell tested positive for COVID-19 after they flew in to visit her in a Texas prison last month.
In court documents, they said each round-trip visit included two flights, hotel stays, and interaction with airline and hotel staff, as well as prison employees.
Montgomery’s legal team has argued that their client suffers from serious mental illness and cannot help file his own clemency petition, in part because all of his clothes have been removed and he only has a “sheet of paper and a crayon” left in his cell, attorney Sandra Babcock said in court this week.
Both Ms. Henry and Ms. Harwell have severe symptoms of the virus and are “functionally disabled” and therefore cannot help file a clemency petition, Ms. Babcock said.
Another attorney could not be assigned to file one because Montgomery’s mental state has deteriorated since the Justice Department scheduled her execution last month and she doesn’t trust many attorneys, but Ms. Henry and Ms. Harwell have worked with it for years and have earned it. Confidence, Ms. Babcock argued.
In his ruling, Judge Moss said that if the execution proceeds as scheduled, Montgomery “would lose his legal right to meaningful representation from an attorney in the clemency process.”
He said attorneys should file a clemency petition by Dec. 24 or bring in other attorneys to help.
Babcock hailed the ruling as “a significant opportunity to prepare and file a clemency request after his attorneys recover from COVID.”
“Ms. Montgomery’s case presents compelling grounds for clemency, including her history as a victim of gang rape, incest and child sex trafficking, as well as her severe mental illness,” Ms. Babcock said.
“You will now have the opportunity to present this evidence to the president with a request that he commute his sentence to life in prison.”
Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwestern Missouri town of Skidmore in December 2004.
He used a rope to strangle Ms. Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then a kitchen knife to cut the girl out of the womb, authorities said.
Prosecutors said Montgomery removed the baby from Ms. Stinnett’s body, took the boy with her, and attempted to pass the girl off as his own.