Lisa Montgomery was put to death early Wednesday morning in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, shortly after the Supreme Court cleared the way for her execution.
Serious doubts as to whether Montgomery, who was mentally ill, was competent to execute, did not prevent the government from killing her.
The 52-year-old man, who was condemned of the murder of a pregnant woman in 2004, was the only woman sentenced to death. For years, she had been incarcerated in a Texas prison for women with special mental health needs and treated for bipolar disorder and complex PTSD resulting from her abusive childhood.
In the days leading up to her death, her lawyers argued that she was incompetent to execute because she was in a state of psychosis and was not fully aware of what was to come to her. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a prisoner who cannot rationally understand why he should be executed.
For these reasons, a federal court granted Montgomery a temporary stay less than 24 hours before his execution was scheduled to allow for an assessment of his mental health, but that hearing never took place. The government appealed the stay and it was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
Montgomery was put to death a week before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who opposes the federal death penalty and has said he will work to end its use. Two more executions are scheduled for later this week, although a temporary reprieve is in place for both.
Within an hour of Montgomery’s execution, at around 2:30 a.m. local time, HuffPost spoke by phone with his lawyers. After a flurry of last-minute court filings trying to save his life, they were finally resting in a hotel near the prison. There, they learned that a number of employees from the Bureau of Prisons who had assisted in Montgomery’s execution were also staying in the same hotel.
Amy Harwell is one of the lawyers for Montgomery, who contracted COVID-19 in November after visiting Montgomery in prison. She gave HuffPost a first-person account of her client’s last day of life and death.
I understand you were with Montgomery today, the day of the execution. Can you describe what happened?
I went to jail in the morning and spent four hours with her. During this time, his spiritual advisor John Francisco came. He gave us all communion and spoke with Lisa about whether things were going wrong tonight, how he hoped to take care of her while he was in the execution chamber. He knew Lisa when she was little. He was the bus driver who picked her up to take her to church, and her mother was her Sunday school teacher.
At one point he pulled this tiny photograph out of his wallet. He turned it over so Lisa could see and she gasped. On the back it was written “Lisa, 7 years old, second year”. Lisa had given her the picture when she was 7 years old. He had clung to it ever since.
He told her that after the performance began, he intended to sing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace” while the chemicals were pouring out. That was the plan. But when we got to the execution house, [Bureau of Prisons staff] did not allow him to be with her. I explained that he was her designated spiritual advisor and had to be in the room with her. A woman said she would go check it out, then ran back and said it was too late. Lisa was on the stretcher, all tied up.
She wiggled her fingers a bit, waving at us and we crossed our eyes with her and waited for the end. She was deprived of her spiritual advisor. It was a needless indignity and a deprivation of truly his basic humanity. That in her final moments they tried to make sense of herself as a beloved child of God is an insult beyond comprehension.
How was she today when you spent time with her?
Lisa’s baseline condition is quite severely disassociated. From the moment we got there today she was very detached from reality, much more than we had ever known her before. One of the first things I said to her was, “Lisa, you are so far away from me. Can you come with us? And she just wasn’t with us. She was not following the conversations. She was not processing the information I gave her. At one point I asked her to repeat what I just said to me, and she was unable to do so.
We had just received the stay [from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana] and I spent the day thinking, I will be able to present this evidence in court! My client is completely out of touch with reality. Instead, they killed her.
How do you feel knowing that while a federal judge believed there was evidence Montgomery was too mentally ill to be executed, she was not allowed a jurisdictional hearing before her death?
the order of [U.S. Judge James Patrick Hanlon] was a 28 page order which was very well motivated. He thought we had a very good performance. So the thought of a judge saying that rings the bell and somehow we don’t even go to court? I hate to use the word inadmissible again but I’m sorry it’s late and I don’t have enough words.
You witnessed his execution. Can you describe what she went through?
We have received quite a bit of training from the medical staff on what to look for in the circumstances where someone receives lethal injections of huge amounts of chemicals. After closing my eyes, there was movement in his mouth. There was a time when I wasn’t sure exactly what I was seeing in her mouth, which was open, if there were any bubbles, or if her tongue was moving. I tend to think of it as a bubble. And then there was a rolling motion in his lower chest, which I was trained by our consultants to know indicates airway obstruction.
Where are you now?
We are in a hotel room. We were told that 65 of the government workers who attended tonight’s “event” – as they euphemistically call it – are also at this hotel, which adds a layer of surreal surreal.
There was a discussion about printing Sister Helen Prejean’s editorial [the Catholic nun who called on the Department of Justice to stop the executions] and sliding it under windshield wipers. So far we have managed not to do this.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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