In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Lisa Montgomery became the first woman to be put to death by the United States government for almost seven decades. At the Indiana penitentiary where she was executed by lethal injection, there are no facilities for female prisoners. So during prolonged legal wrangling over her fate, Montgomery was cruelly placed in a holding cell in the execution-chamber building itself.
Her crime was horrific. In 2004, Montgomery strangled a young woman, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant. She then cut a baby girl from her womb, and attempted to pass her off as her own. The pain and suffering of Ms Stinnett’s family can barely be imagined. But the political context of this week’s execution, and overwhelming evidence of Montgomery’s longstanding mental illness, suggests a gross miscarriage of justice has taken place.
Issuing a stay of execution, subsequently overruled by the supreme court, a district judge cited evidence that “Ms Montgomery’s mental state is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution.” Since entering the penitentiary system, the 52 year-old had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety and depression, psychosis, mood swings, dissociation and memory loss. Throughout her childhood, Montgomery was gang-raped by her alcoholic stepfather and his friends, in a cabin built for that purpose. She was physically tortured in myriad ways by both parents. Social workers and doctors failed to intervene. A consultant to her legal team said Montgomery was “profoundly mentally ill as a result of a lifetime of torture and sexual violence. Lisa is not the worst of the worst – she is the most broken of the broken.” This was not enough to prevent her sharing the fate of 10 other prisoners executed by the government since July, when the Trump administration resumed the practice after a 17-year pause. In the history of US justice, there have never been so many scheduled federal executions during the lame-duck period of a presidency.
Donald Trump’s recently-departed attorney general, William Barr, has said the rush of executions is delivering justice for “staggeringly brutal” murders. In truth it amounts to a vicious and vindictive last stand by a bullying, authoritarian administration. In the US and the rest of the world, support for capital punishment is declining. Globally, only six countries executed more people than America last year: China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Somalia and North Korea. In Europe, Belarus is the only state to retain the death penalty. Russia imposed a moratorium in the 1990s.
The association of capital punishment with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes is no coincidence. The postwar rise of democracies around the world took place alongside a growing drive for human rights and limits on government powers. Death penalty abolition movements benefited as a consequence. In bucking this trend, Mr Trump has yet again turned his country into a dysfunctional outlier, as well as a fellow-traveller with regimes he professes to despise. His successor, Joe Biden, has pledged to work towards the elimination of capital punishment in America. For Lisa Montgomery, whose life was a tragedy from beginning to end, it will be too late.