The upcoming execution represents a rare instance of a woman being put to death in the United States. Women constitute just 1 percent of the nation’s executions and account for only 16 of the 1,526 instances of capital punishment since a Supreme Court case reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Washington-based nonprofit group Death Penalty Information Center.
Her federal execution is also set to be the ninth carried out since the Trump administration resumed conducting the punishments in July after a 17-year hiatus. The Justice Department on Friday also scheduled the execution of Brandon Bernard, convicted of killing two youth ministers in 1999, for Dec. 10.
A dog show in 2004 led Montgomery to Bobbie Jo Stinnett, the woman she would eventually kill, court records say. Stinnett, 23, became pregnant that spring and shared the news with online followers of her dog-breeding business, including Montgomery.
Around the same time, court records say, Montgomery started telling people that she was pregnant, even though she had undergone a sterilization procedure more than a decade earlier. That December, she used an alias to contact Stinnett and express interest in buying a puppy, and the pair agreed to meet the next day.
Montgomery, 36, drove from her home in eastern Kansas to Stinnett’s house in northwestern Missouri with a sharp kitchen knife and a cord in her jacket pocket. There, she strangled Stinnett, cut the baby from her body and fled with the child, according to court records.
Although she initially tried to pass off the baby as her own, court records say Montgomery ultimately confessed to killing Stinnett and stealing the child. The baby, Victoria Jo Stinnett, was returned to her father.
An appeals court upheld Montgomery’s conviction, and other courts rejected her requests for collateral relief, according to federal prosecutors.
Kelley Henry, a public defender representing Montgomery, said the death penalty was inappropriate because her client committed the crime while influenced by post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by a childhood of being sexually trafficked.
“Lisa Montgomery has long accepted full responsibility for her crime, and she will never leave prison,” Henry said Sunday in a statement. “But her severe mental illness and the devastating impacts of her childhood trauma make executing her a profound injustice.”
In addition to the fact that women are less frequently arrested for violent crimes, more men are sentenced to death because they more often have a prior criminal record, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Killings by women, he said, are more likely to be domestic incidents considered “heat of passion” killings, which are not punishable by death.
Cases in which women are sentenced to death often involve prosecutors portraying the defendant as straying from gender norms by, for example, being sexually deviant or an inattentive mother, Dunham said. He said many women who receive the death penalty were not in their right mind at the time of the crime.
The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Heady, who was put to death in 1953 after she and Carl Hall kidnapped and killed the 6-year-old son of a wealthy car dealer. They demanded and received $600,000 in ransom, but had already killed the boy.
Although Hall fired the shot that killed the child, Heady admitted to kidnapping him from his school and arranging the ransom.
Another woman was put to death by the federal government the same year: Ethel Rosenberg, who along with her husband, Julius Rosenberg, was convicted of conspiring to give U.S. secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Her sons have fought for years to clear her name, arguing that she was not a spy and was arrested so prosecutors could use her as leverage against her husband.
Dunham said Heady and Ethel Rosenberg fit a pattern of women sentenced to death: Neither was the mastermind of their crimes, and neither directly killed anyone. Many women on death row are co-defendants with a dominant male defendant, Dunham said, and most women who committed murder themselves were seriously mentally ill or under extreme mental distress at the time.
While Montgomery is the only woman on federal death row, 52 other women are on state-level death rows, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nearly half are in California.
The scheduling of Montgomery’s execution exemplifies the aggressive pace with which the federal government has carried out death sentences since announcing last year that it would resume the practice. The Justice Department carried out three executions in four days in July, the same number it had conducted over the previous three decades.
Federal prosecutors had imposed an informal pause on executions between 2003 and 2019 while they reviewed their lethal injection procedures. In resuming the executions, Attorney General William P. Barr announced that officials would replace a three-drug cocktail with one drug, pentobarbital.
Use of the death penalty has decreased significantly in recent decades. Most states retain capital-punishment laws, but only some regularly use them. There were 22 executions carried out in 2019, down from 85 in 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.