Federal government executes first woman in nearly 70 years

Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, is seen in Anaheim, Calif., in this 2016 file photo. She and other opponents of the death penalty spoke out against the Jan. 13, 2021, federal execution of Lisa Montgomery. CNS photo/J.D. Long-Garcia, The Tidings

WASHINGTON (CNS) — After a flurry of court decisions, the Supreme Court reversed a pair of rulings from federal appeals courts that had put death-row inmate Lisa Montgomery’s execution on hold, and it denied two other last-minute requests to postpone the execution.

Montgomery was put to death by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, soon after the court’s decision at 1:31 a.m. (EST). She was the first woman to be put to death in federal prison since 1953.

After the court’s decision, Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille and longtime death penalty opponent, tweeted: “In yet another after-midnight ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the federal government to proceed with Lisa Montgomery’s execution immediately. This decision will forever be a scarlet letter for the SCOTUS — a complete failure to protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

Catholic leaders have been pleading for an end to the death penalty and urging leaders to stop this practice, particularly with three executions initially scheduled to take place between Jan. 12-15.

USCCB calls for abolition of death penalty

Two bishop chairmen had called on the current Administration to stop the upcoming executions, and for the new Congress and incoming Administration to abolish the death penalty in federal law. Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued the following statement:

“It is long past time to abolish the death penalty from our state and federal laws, and we call on the new Congress and President-Elect Biden to make this a priority. One vehicle to accomplish this in federal law is the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act (S. 2390 and H.R. 4052 in the 116th Congress). In addition, we ask President-Elect Biden to declare a moratorium on federal executions and to commute current federal death sentences to terms of imprisonment.

“The terrible loss suffered by victims’ families must be considered as well. We encourage lawmakers to redirect the energy and resources that currently go towards executions to provide compassionate and professional assistance to the families of victims.

“Every person is created in the image and likeness of God, and we encourage everyone to work to rid the death penalty from our state and federal laws and to develop greater appreciation for the sacred dignity of every human life.”

Archbishop Coakley and Archbishop Naumann wrote to all members of Congress asking to abolish the federal death penalty in a letter here.

Montgomery’s petition for clemency denied

On Jan. 12, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia halted the executions scheduled for Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs Jan. 14 and Jan. 15, respectively, due to their risk of increased suffering because of COVID-19 lung damage.

The two inmates tested positive for the coronavirus in December. The previous day the American Medical Association urged Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and the Justice Department to postpone the federal executions scheduled for the second week in January, saying recent executions have turned into COVID-19 super-spreader events.

In 2004, Montgomery, now 52, was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Skidmore, Missouri, and cutting her open and taking her 8-month-old baby.

Lisa Montgomery, who was the only woman on federal death row, is seen in this undated photo inside the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. She was executed Jan. 13, 2021, after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed lower-court decisions postponing the execution. CNS photo/Courtesy of attorneys for Lisa Montgomery, Handout via Reuters

In a Facebook post in support of Montgomery’s clemency, Sister Helen said: “We must stop the execution of Lisa Montgomery. Lisa was psychotic — unable to act rationally — when she committed a terrible crime. She desperately needed psychiatric care and instead she got a death sentence.”

In a nearly 7,000-page clemency petition submitted in early January to President Donald Trump, Montgomery’s lawyers detailed their client’s claims of physical abuse, rape and torture as well as being sex trafficked by her mother.

“Everything about this case is overwhelmingly sad,” the petition said. “As human beings we want to turn away. It is easy to call Mrs. Montgomery evil and a monster, as the government has. She is neither.”

Notre Dame president speaks out against execution

On Jan. 10, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said Montgomery’s upcoming execution was “particularly troubling,” because it “illustrates some of the many systemic failures in our system of capital punishment. The victim of severe child abuse and sexual violence herself, Montgomery committed a crime so heinous and bizarre that it raises serious questions about her mental state.”

In a statement he said: “President Trump, whose administration has expressed a commitment to defend the sanctity of human life, has the power to stop this inhumane, unprecedented and unnecessary spree of executions pursued by his Justice Department in the waning days of his administration. I urge him to do so.”

He stressed that the “most fundamental objection to the death penalty, though, is that it undermines our commitment to the sanctity of all human life — healthy or infirm, talented or ordinary, good or bad. Death-row inmates have been convicted of some of the most awful crimes imaginable, yet even their lives do not lose that dignity.”

‘Uphold the sacred dignity of every person’

The Catholic Mobilizing Network also has spoken out against Montgomery’s execution along with scheduled federal executions of Johnson and Higgs. It is holding virtual prayer vigils on the afternoon of each scheduled execution and did this Jan. 12 hours prior to Montgomery’s execution. Participants can sign up online at https://catholicsmobilizing.org/virtual-vigils.

The group launched an online petition campaign asking President-elect Joe Biden to make it a priority to end federal executions once he is sworn into office, urging the incoming administration to “uphold the sacred dignity of every person” and make good on its promises to dismantle the federal death penalty system.

The petition names several possible avenues toward abolition the president-elect could pursue, including declaring an official moratorium on federal executions, commuting the death sentences of all those currently on federal death row and advocating to end the death penalty in law.

The last suggestion was taken up in late afternoon Jan. 11 when Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, the incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, announced plans to introduce legislation seeking an end to the federal death penalty.

“There are three lives that hang in the balance this week alone,” Pressley said in an interview with NPR. “This is why we reintroduced this bill this week and are urging Congress to act immediately to pass it. State-sanctioned murder is not justice.”