Execution of only woman on federal death row delayed after her Tennessee-based attorneys contracted COVID-19

A federal judge has delayed the execution of the only woman on federal death row after two of her attorneys — Tennessee-based public defenders — contracted severe cases of COVID-19

Lisa Montgomery’s execution has been delayed until at least Dec. 31 under an order filed Thursday by U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss. A new date has not yet been set.

Assistant federal public defenders Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell, based in the Middle Tennessee District, asked the courts to delay the execution after they each caught COVID-19 during last-ditch efforts to save Montgomery’s life.

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Their symptoms have limited their ability to file a clemency petition to President Donald Trump, the court found. 

“The public’s interest in seeing justice done lies not only in carrying out the sentence imposed years ago but also in the lawful process leading to possible execution,” Moss wrote.

Undated photo of Lisa Montgomery in prison. Montgomery, scheduled to be executed Dec. 8, 2020, is the only woman on federal death row.

“Given the gravity of the circumstances and the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, the Court concludes that the balance of equities and the public interest weigh in Plaintiff’s favor. But the Court will also fashion its injunction to give due respect to the interest of Defendants and the public in avoiding unjustified delays in capitals (sic) cases.”

Montgomery was convicted in 2007 of fatally strangling a 23-year-old pregnant woman, cutting her body open and kidnapping her baby.

She was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Dec. 8 in Terre Haute, Indiana, the first female inmate expected to be put to death by the U.S. government in more than six decades. 

‘Virtually bed-ridden’:Attorneys for woman to be executed at Terre Haute ask for delay after catching COVID-19

Under Thursday’s order, Harwell and Henry must finalize the clemency petition as soon as they are able. If they’re still too unwell to do so without further assistance by Dec. 24, they’re ordered to add other attorneys or ask the court to appoint additional qualified counsel to the case. 

“The district court’s ruling gives Lisa Montgomery a meaningful opportunity to prepare and present a clemency application after her attorneys recover from COVID.

“Mrs. 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. She will now have the opportunity to present this evidence to the President with a request that he commute her sentence to life imprisonment,” said Sandra L. Babcock, Clinical Professor of Law, Cornell Law School in an emailed release. Babcock has previously entered declarations to the court on the case. 

Only woman on death row

The Tennessee attorneys were appointed by a federal judge to assist on the case, as fellow counsel did not have capital case experience.

Harwell and Henry believe they caught the virus in a series of visits to Montgomery in a Texas federal prison to help console her, prepare her clemency petition and prepare her for her scheduled death. 

Moss’ order highlighted the unique challenges around the still barely-understood virus affecting lead attorneys on a capital case. 

Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 8 at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind.

“The Court can only speculate today about the future course of a disease that is, by all accounts, unpredictable and, at times, gravely debilitating,” he wrote. “The Court, accordingly, finds that Harwell and Henry are currently unable meaningfully to assist in the preparation of Plaintiff’s clemency petition.”

Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in December 2004.

Montgomery drove from her Kansas home to Stinnett’s house in Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy, prosecutors said. When she arrived at the home, Montgomery used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, but Stinnett was conscious and trying to defend herself as Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from the womb, authorities said.

Prosecutors said Montgomery removed the baby from Stinnett’s body, took the child with her, and attempted to pass the girl off as her own.

Investigation into Montgomery revealed a lifetime of mental, physical and sexual abuse, as well as serious brain injuries. 

Attorneys say Montgomery’s mental illness is a critically important issue relevant to a request that Trump commute her sentence to life without parole, but travel restrictions and virus risks have limited the ability of mental health experts familiar with her history to evaluate her status. 

President-elect Joe Biden, set to step into office in January, has signaled his intent to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level. Any further a delay could mean life or death to Montgomery and her companions on death row.

Reach reporter Mariah Timms at mtimms@tennessean.com or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms