TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The US government’s plans to carry out its first execution of a female inmate in nearly seven decades were on hold Tuesday after a judge ordered a competency hearing, and two other executions set for later this week also were halted because the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.
The three executions were to be the last before President-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of the federal death penalty, is sworn-in next week. Now it’s unclear whether there will be any additional executions under President Donald Trump, who resumed federal executions in July after 17-year pause. Ten federal inmates have since been put to death.
Lisa Montgomery faced execution Tuesday for killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby girl from the womb with a kitchen knife. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own. But a judge on Monday found Montgomery was likely mentally ill and couldn’t comprehend she would be put to death.
A federal judge for the US District of Columbia halted the scheduled executions later this week of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs in a ruling Tuesday. Johnson, convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs, convicted of ordering the murders of three women in Maryland, both tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
Another federal judge in southwestern Indiana handed down the order on Montgomery less than 24 hours before the 52-year-old Montgomery, the only female on federal death row, was set to be executed at a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Any delay of Montgomery’s execution beyond Joe Biden’s inauguration next Tuesday would likely mean she will not be executed since a Biden administration is expected to oppose carrying out of federal death sentences.
One of Montgomery’s lawyers, Kelley Henry, told The Associated Press Tuesday morning that her client arrived at the Terre Haute facility late Monday night from a Texas prison and that, because there are no facilities for female inmates, she was being kept in a cell in the execution-chamber building itself.
“I don’t believe she has any rational comprehension of what’s going on at all,” Henry said.
Montgomery has done needle-point in prison, making gloves, hats and other knitted items as gifts for her lawyers and others, Henry said.
Montgomery’s legal team says she suffered “sexual torture,” including gang rapes, as a child, permanently scarring her emotionally and exacerbating mental-health issues that ran in her family.
At trial, prosecutors accused Montgomery of faking mental illness, noting that her killing of Stinnett was premeditated and included meticulous planning, including online research on how to perform a C-section.
Henry balked at that idea, citing extensive testing and brain scans that supported the diagnosis of mental illness.