I start my day today with a very heavy heart. In the dark hours of the morning, our federal government executed Lisa Montgomery, the only female inmate on federal death row in our country and the 11th individual to be executed since President Trump ended the 17-year hiatus on federal executions last year.
Later today I will join colleagues in facilitating the first in a series of discussions with the Action Alliance membership about how we might bring about a more expansive approach to both safety and accountability in our communities. Given all that we have learned over the past 40 years, what do the next steps look like in building stronger, healthier communities where accountability for sexual and domestic violence is strong and we start to turn the tide on this violence? More than 100 members have signed up to be part of the conversation—there is a thirst for this conversation across our country and across Virginia.
Just over 20 years ago, our coalition faced the necessity of coming together for another big conversation about our shared values and vision for accountability. Legislation had been introduced to link particular crimes of domestic violence with the death penalty. It didn’t take long for a position to emerge — a position that has been reconfirmed in the decades since:
It is the Action Alliance’s mission to create a Virginia free from sexual and domestic violence which harm individuals, families, and a society as a whole. The existence of the death penalty for any crime perpetuates the use of violence to control individuals or groups of individuals and creates a society that tolerates violence and abuse. Sexual and domestic violence is linked to other forms of oppression, which disproportionately affect women, children, and other marginalized people. Recognizing that the death penalty is disproportionately and unjustly applied to people of color, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and people with serious mental health issues, it is not consistent with the Action Alliance’s mission to support the death penalty.
The execution of Lisa Montgomery was an unjust killing, sanctioned and perpetrated by our nation; carried out in the middle of the night like so many other shameful acts of violence. In a statement, Lisa’s attorney, Kelley Henry, said, “The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight. Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame… The government stopped at nothing in its zeal to kill this damaged and delusional woman.” Without a doubt, the crime for which Lisa was convicted was a heinous one — based on her actions, Lisa was undoubtedly a threat to the community around her. Swift and serious sanctions were required for the sake of both safety and accountability.
But what does accountability look like when community fails to protect a baby born into the world at high risk of intellectual and developmental disabilities? When we, as her community, failed to protect a child who was sexually violated over and over and over again by family members and by strangers who paid them for access to her body? When we failed to provide the behavioral health treatment she so desperately needed as a youth? When we chose to withhold psychiatric care for her psychosis until she was imprisoned?
As Henry’s statement also expresses, “Even though President Trump could not be the hero we asked him to be, we are here to say to every woman and girl who has been the victim of violence and degradation: You matter. Your pain matters. You are more than a victim. You are a survivor. Do not let anyone humiliate or shame you. You deserve to be loved.” I echo that sentiment.
I am holding Lisa’s spirit in the light this morning and praying that she has found a kind of peace in death that was so elusive in her life. I am thinking of the family and community members that continue to mourn the loss of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, whose life was ended by Lisa Montgomery; and of Victoria Jo, who never knew her mother after being stolen from her. I am holding compassion and love for these people I have never met, and hoping that they find peace as well. I am praying for our nation, that we can find a way forward – one strongly rooted in compassion and love — and that we can build communities in which we never lose a Bobbie Jo or a Lisa again.
Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for 40 years.
Full Statement from Attorney Kelley Henry on the Pending Execution of Lisa Montgomery
“The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight. Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame. No one disagrees that Mrs. Montgomery was the victim of unspeakable torture and sex trafficking. No one can credibly dispute Mrs. Montgomery’s longstanding debilitating mental disease – diagnosed and treated for the first time by the Bureau of Prisons’ own doctors. Our Constitution forbids the execution of a person who is unable to rationally understand her execution. The current administration knows this. And they killed her anyway. Violating the Constitution, federal law, its own regulations, and longstanding norms along the way.
The government stopped at nothing in its zeal to kill this damaged and delusional woman. After we, her attorneys, contracted COVID-19 during our travels to visit her after her execution was scheduled, the government fought tooth and nail against any delay to allow us to recover so we could represent her effectively. Then they violated the law in multiple ways in rescheduling her execution for the final days of the Trump Administration. As courts agreed Lisa’s case presented important legal issues warranting serious consideration – including whether she was competent to execute – the government hammered onward with appeals.
By insisting on an execution during a pandemic, this administration demonstrated its reckless disregard for human life of innocent citizens. Executions are super-spreader events. The government knows this. Yet, they put the lives of every single person who must participate in these “events” as well as every one of those persons’ friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, and who knows how many other people. Because this administration was so afraid that the next one might choose Life over Death, they put the lives and health of US citizens in grave danger.
In the midst of all this litigation, Lisa’s request for clemency remained before President Trump. It was supported by thousands of organizations and individuals – faith leaders, anti-violence advocates, conservative leaders, international organizations, and many more. But the President did nothing. He had not even the decency to formally deny – or even acknowledge – Lisa’s clemency application, though it is hard to imagine a case more deserving of executive intervention than this one.
Lisa Montgomery’s execution was far from justice. She should never have faced a death sentence in the first place, as no other woman has faced execution for a similar crime.
And Lisa was much more than the tragic crime she committed, a crime for which she felt deep remorse before she lost all touch with reality in the days before her execution. Lisa was also much more than the horrors inflicted upon her, the sexual violence and abuse she endured at the hands of those who were supposed to love, nurture, and protect her.
Lisa was a loving mother, grandmother, and sister who adored her family. She was a devout Christian who loved Christmas and created beautiful angels for those lucky enough to receive her gifts. Lisa often became trapped in the prison of her mind, losing touch with reality for periods of time. But when not gripped by psychosis, she was a gentle and caring person whom I was honored to know and to represent.
Lisa Nouri, Amy Harwell and I represented Mrs. Montgomery for eight years. We loved her very much and she loved us. She honored us with her truth and trusted us to share it in a way that not only told her story, but that could help other women.
Even though President Trump could not be the hero we asked him to be, we are here to say to every woman and girl who has been the victim of violence and degradation: You matter. Your pain matters. You are more than a victim. You are a survivor. Do not let anyone humiliate or shame you. You deserve to be loved.
In the past week, we have seen just how far President Trump and his administration will go in their disdain for justice and the rule of law. This failed government adds itself to the long list of people and institutions who failed Lisa.
We should recognize Lisa Montgomery’s execution for what it was: the vicious, unlawful, and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power. We cannot let this happen again.”
Kelley Henry, attorney for Lisa Montgomery, January 13, 2021Read more news