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Execution Date Nears For Only Woman On Federal Death Row

NOEL KING, HOST:

The only woman on federal death row is set to be executed in less than a week. Lawyers for 52-year-old Lisa Montgomery are asking President Trump to grant her clemency. They say she committed her crime after a lifetime of being tortured. A quick warning for you - parts of this story are very disturbing. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Lisa Montgomery was convicted 13 years ago in Missouri for fatally strangling 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Stinnett was eight months pregnant. Montgomery cut open her body, stole her child and tried to pass it off as her own. Montgomery attorney, Kelley Henry acknowledges the crime was horrific. She says it never would have occurred if someone had stopped the daily terror that Montgomery suffered at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

KELLEY HENRY: Not only from the multiple gang rapes which took place over a period of years but also physical abuse, psychological abuse.

CORLEY: And that trauma, says Henry, calls Montgomery to suffer severe mental illness. A woman on federal death row hasn't been executed since 1953. It was just last year that the Justice Department revived federal executions after a hiatus of nearly two decades. Under the Trump administration, 10 men on death row have been executed. Henry says her team was shocked when a date for Montgomery was set.

HENREY: There are 30 people on federal death row whose convictions predate Ms. Montgomery's. There's simply no justification for choosing her above all others.

CORLEY: A federal judge delayed the December execution after Henry and another attorney contracted severe cases of COVID-19. Yesterday, they filed a clemency petition asking President Trump to commute Montgomery's sentence to life in prison. The family of Bobbie Jo Stinnett declined to speak with NPR, but there have been vigils in Missouri to support the family. During a press conference yesterday, Montgomery's sister, Diane Mattingly apologized to the family. She and others say they are not excusing Montgomery's actions, but her life provides some context.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DIANE MATTINGLY: I am bruised, but she is broken.

CORLEY: Mattingly says she was also sexually abused when the young sisters lived together, but she was placed in a foster home. Her sister was left behind to suffer repeated sexual abuse by her stepfather and his friends while her mother offered her child to other men for money.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MATTINGLY: The thing is, is that if somebody would have stepped up when Lisa was young and stood up for her and got her out of that home, none of this would have ever happened.

CORLEY: Law professor Sandra Babcock is the faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. She says there have been cases similar to Montgomery's but with a different outcome.

SANDRA BABCOCK: Unlike Lisa's, the prosecutors recognized and juries recognized that the crime was a product of their mental illness. And as a result, not one of those women is today facing the death penalty.

CORLEY: Montgomery's attorneys are appealing next week's execution date. Babcock says she's encouraged. President Trump recently commuted the sentence of another woman who was the victim of child sex trafficking.

BABCOCK: And that does give us hope that he will have empathy for Lisa.

CORLEY: And that with just a few days in office, the president will decide that it's punishment enough for a traumatized, mentally ill woman who committed a terrible act, to live the rest of her life in prison.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEDERICO ALBANESE'S "THE ROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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