Lisa Montgomery’s first experiences of sexual abuse occurred indirectly when she was three years old. She would lie in bed at night beside her beloved half-sister Diane, close enough to touch, while Diane, then eight, was being raped by their male babysitter.
At the age of 11, Montgomery learnt what it was like to be attacked herself. Her stepfather Jack, a “mean drunk” who regularly beat her and her mother, began raping her once or twice a week.
Related: Execution of only woman on US federal death row can go ahead, court rules
The assaults became such an important part of Jack’s life over the next four years that he built a room for the girl on the side of their trailer, deep in the Oklahoma woods. It had its own entrance, so that he could come and go as he desired and nobody would know or hear her screams.
He would rape and sodomise her, often with a pillow smothering her face. When she resisted, he slammed her head so hard against the concrete floor that she suffered traumatic brain injury, MRI brain scans would later show.
One day, her mother Judy happened to enter the room while the child was being assaulted by her husband. Judy was so incensed she fetched a gun and held it to her daughter’s head, screaming: “How could you do this to me?”
Over time, the abuse expanded. Montgomery’s stepfather invited friends round to gang rape her in the room – ordeals that would last for hours and end with the men urinating on her like she was trash. Her mother got in on the act too, selling Montgomery’s body to the plumber and the electrician whenever she needed odd jobs doing.
This is Lisa Montgomery’s story.
These were her formative experiences which doctors, psychologists and social workers have all concluded amounted to torture endured across years. This is the woman, now aged 52, whom the Trump administration intends to put to death in seven days’ time on grounds that she is such a cold-hearted murderer that even being locked up for the rest of her natural life would be insufficient punishment.
On Friday, a US appeals court cleared the way for the execution to proceed. The move was enthusiastically endorsed by the US justice department which has argued under Trump that Montgomery is guilty of an “especially heinous” crime. But those who have looked deeply into the agonized life that lay behind her criminal act see it differently.
“This is a story about a woman who is profoundly mentally ill as a result of a lifetime of torture and sexual violence,” said Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and a consultant to Montgomery’s legal team. “Lisa is not the worst of the worst – she is the most broken of the broken.”
Lisa is not the worst of the worst – she is the most broken of the broken
Should Montgomery’s execution go ahead by lethal injection at the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, on 12 January it would be the first execution of a woman by the US government in almost 70 years. She would also be among the first prisoners to be executed by a lame-duck president in more than a century, as Donald Trump rushes to kill three prisoners over four days as a macabre climax of his time in the White House.
Nobody would disagree that the crime for which Montgomery was convicted was anything but horrifying. Its details are hard to contemplate.
On 16 December 2004, at the age of 36, she traveled from her home in Kansas to the tiny town of Skidmore in Missouri to meet Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a woman she had got to know online through their shared love of dogs.
Stinnett, a dog breeder, was eight months pregnant with her first child. Montgomery went to see her ostensibly to buy a puppy, but once inside the house she attacked Stinnett and strangled her to death with a rope.
She then cut out the fetus using a kitchen knife, and over the next several hours attempted to pass off the newborn baby as her own. She was arrested the following day after the discovery of Stinnett’s body; the baby was returned to her family, and went on to be raised by her father.
For some Americans, including it seems Trump who has resumed federal executions after a hiatus of 17 years, the Lisa Montgomery case stops there. She committed a horrendous murder, and now it is time for her to face the ultimate punishment that she deserves.
But to the lawyers and professional experts who have spent years investigating Montgomery’s crime, personality and formative experiences, the chilling headlines about her gruesome act are just the beginning of a journey – not towards condoning or excusing, but towards understanding.
“We need to understand what could lead to someone being so profoundly disconnected from their actions that they would be capable of doing something that a normal healthy person would find unimaginable,” said Katherine Porterfield, a child psychologist specialising in treating survivors of torture. Porterfield spent many hours with Montgomery over 18 days as part of an appeals process in 2016.
“Things that are almost impossible to comprehend are comprehensible when you take into account mental illness, massive childhood trauma and what that does to kids,” she said.
Part of the journey towards understanding has involved taking on board the inadequate legal defense Montgomery received at the sentencing phase of her trial. It was in 2007, and the jury, which had already convicted her of murder and kidnapping, was being asked to decide whether or not to put her on death row.
At her 2007 trial, Montgomery was represented by a public defense lawyer who had never tried a capital case and by Fred Duchardt, a Kansas City attorney with a particular claim to fame. In 2016, the Guardian revealed that Duchardt had the distinction of having more of his clients sentenced to death in federal court than any other defence lawyer in America – four out of seven federal death row inmates from Missouri had had the fortune, or misfortune, to have him as their attorney.
Montgomery’s lawyers gave her the narrowest of defenses at trial. Duchardt came up with a peculiar legal argument – that she suffered from a rare mental illness called pseudocyesis which induced the delusion in her that Stinnett’s baby was her own.
The theory didn’t fit the facts, and the jury didn’t buy it. Having found Montgomery guilty, they were also unimpressed by the limited mitigating evidence that was presented to them during the sentencing phase of the trial. The defense lawyers cited some evidence of physical abuse, called a few woefully prepared witnesses, and that was about it. The prosecutors lampooned the thinly argued plea to spare her execution the “abuse excuse”.
And so Montgomery duly came to condemned to death on 26 October 2007.
It was only years later, when a fresh team of defense lawyers began to represent Montgomery at appeal, that the vast extent of the sexual violence and torture that she had absorbed as a child began to emerge. As part of their investigations, the legal team employed several expert witnesses to examine the prisoner and piece together her story.
Janet Vogelsang, a clinical social worker, spent several long days talking to Montgomery in 2016. After many hours slowly gaining the prisoner’s trust, and learning about her childhood trauma, Vogelsang began to have a sense of deja vu with similar sessions she had had with military veterans traumatized by war.
“Talking to Lisa was like talking to Vietnam and Korean war veterans who had been held in holes and bamboo cages under the most horrible conditions,” Vogelsang told the Guardian.
At the end of her researches, Vogelsang produced a mammoth 184-page social history of Montgomery’s life. Most of the material she chronicled had never been presented to the jury.
It included the sexual assaults and the gang rapes, the sexual trafficking and the violence. But that was just the start of it. There was also the constant demeaning and humiliation.
From a young age, Montgomery’s mother would duct tape her mouth to prevent her talking. The girl was stripped naked and made to stand on the porch in front of drunken visitors, then told she would be sent away to a home if she made the slightest noise.
Her parents made her beat her younger sister with a board until the child bled. Then there was that room on the side of the trailer where her stepfather abused her, not just sexually but in the depths of her psyche.
“He cut a hole in the closet where he could go and watch her in the room when she was back from school,” Vogelsang recalled. “The stepfather would sit in the closet to surveil her. So she found the one tiny part of the room where she could stand where he could not see her – she would literally curl up in that corner for hours just to stay out of his field of vision.”
Vogelsang’s report concludes that what Montgomery experienced in the room was tantamount to the torture more commonly experienced by child soldiers and prisoners of war. “She was isolated, brainwashed, humiliated and degraded, not allowed to speak, and beaten at will.”
Porterfield told the Guardian that in her one-to-one sessions with the prisoner, she quickly came to recognize symptoms of trauma and mental illness. “When I met with her she would become spacey,” she said.
“She would not be able to keep her train of thought, and describe strange ways of thinking to describe her reality. She lives in a state of disassociation, going in and out all the time. When I asked about her childhood, she would display an inability to connect to her emotions – with a blank facial expression, blank voice, talking about herself in the third person.”
Porterfield and Vogelsang are united in their diagnosis of Montgomery. “There is no question,” Porterfield said. “Mrs Montgomery is profoundly mentally ill. She has multiple impairments, no question at all about that.”
Since Montgomery has received intensive psychiatric care and analysis in the prison system she has been variously diagnosed with bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety and depression, psychosis, mood swings, disassociation and memory loss. Exhaustive studies of her childhood and early adulthood suggest that she was grappling with many of these conditions before, and leading immediately up to, the committing of her crime.
In the months leading up to the murder, she had several episodes in which she told those around her that she was pregnant – a claim that was palpably false as she was involuntarily sterilized after the birth of her fourth child. She also displayed all the symptoms of her mental illness, including disassociation, memory loss and profound depression.
I have never seen a case like this
And yet nobody ever came to her assistance or offered her any protection or help. It is the one booming theme of the Lisa Montgomery story that leaps out of the court documents, every bit as strongly as the horrifying crime that she went on to commit: society failed her.
Only once throughout her entire rotten childhood did social workers pay the family a visit, and even then they helpfully called Montgomery’s parents ahead of time so that they were able to enforce silence upon her on pain of death.
Then there was the doctor in Oklahoma who examined her as a child, learnt about the regular rapes – but did nothing about it. The child welfare office whom Montgomery’s mother, Judy, informed about the sexual abuse – but did nothing about it. And the family court judge who presided at the parents’ divorce who actually scolded Judy for failing to report the rape of her daughter to police – but then himself did absolutely nothing about it.
Society failed Lisa Montgomery, not once, not twice, but repeatedly. Now society, in the form of the Trump administration, is preparing to kill her as punishment for the outcome.
Sandra Babcock told the Guardian that over the past 30 years she has defended hundreds of prisoners facing execution in countries around the world, “and I have never seen a case like this. I don’t know of any execution in the US or elsewhere that has been carried out on someone who has been subjected to such unrelenting sexual torture and violence.”
Babcock said that she is convinced most Americans would want to halt the execution were they to know all the facts about what Lisa Montgomery did and what came before that. Most Americans do not know all the facts.
The clock is ticking. “If the execution goes ahead we should all feel a deep sense of shame,” she said.