For the first time in nearly seventy years, the U.S. federal government executed a woman on January 13, 2021. Lisa Montgomery’s story is horrific, violent, and overwhelmingly complex, but, above all, her story deserves to be told. Lisa Montgomery committed a brutal crime causing unfathomable harm to a Missouri family, but Lisa Montgomery was herself a victim of incomprehensible abuse, sex trafficking, and, ultimately, neglect by government officials who were well aware of what was happening to her as a child. Her story is an example of exactly the kind of harm our justice system inflicts by turning a blind eye to abuse and ignoring victims.
Knowing the horrific details of Lisa Montgomery’s childhood is important because these unimaginable experiences had permanent and traumatic effects on Lisa’s mental health. She was born with permanent brain damage due to her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy, and she grew up in what her half-sister, Diane Mattingly, terms, “a house of horrors.” Lisa’s mother, Judy Shaughnessy, physically abused the sisters by beating them, throwing them into cold showers, and whipping them with belts, cords, and hangers. She forced the girls to watch as she brutally killed their family dog by smashing its head with a shovel. And when Lisa was just four years old and Diane was eight, one of Judy’s boyfriends began regularly going into the girls’ bedroom at night and raping Diane while Lisa lay in the bed just next to her. Social workers fortunately rescued Diane from the household and placed her in foster care, but Lisa was left in her mother’s care.
One of Judy’s husbands, Lisa’s stepfather, began raping Lisa when she was eleven years old. This sexual abuse continued for years and further escalated when Lisa’s stepfather built a shed onto their trailer where he would regularly take Lisa to beat and rape her and allowed his friends to rape her there as well. Lisa experienced what can only be called sexual torture beginning in her early teens when her mother allowed strange men to rape Lisa for money and even allowed them to gang rape Lisa on multiple occasions. She also invited servicemen who did work around their home to rape young Lisa as payment for their services.
This horrific abuse and sex trafficking went on for years, yet no one stepped in to save Lisa. Over the years, many people were aware of what was going on in Lisa’s home and no one did anything to stop it. School administrators suspected Lisa was likely being abused at home due to her dirty and ragged appearance every day as well as her suffering grades that led to her being moved into special needs classes. Yet, no one looked any further or reported anything to authorities. Lisa told one of her cousins, a law enforcement officer, about the abuse and even described to him how the men would sometimes tie her up, rape her, and urinate on her afterwards. Instead of reporting the abuse or telling anyone about it, Lisa’s cousin drove her home and left her there with her abusers. Further, Lisa’s mother as well as Lisa herself testified about the sexual assaults and abuse at the hands of her stepfather during divorce proceedings in an effort for Lisa’s mother to win custody. The judge in that case admonished Lisa’s mother for not reporting the abuse, but then the judge himself never reported the abuse. Instead, Lisa was allowed to continue to live in her mother’s care and continue to be regularly raped and abused.
Lisa’s traumatic experiences unfortunately did not end when she reached adulthood. Rather, at eighteen years old, Lisa was pressured by her mother into marrying her stepbrother where the beatings and rape continued for years. One of Lisa’s brothers even found a home videotape where Lisa’s husband had filmed as he beat and raped her. Lisa had four children with her first husband, and then she underwent sterilization at the behest of her mother and husband. Lisa eventually divorced her stepbrother and married her second husband, Kevin Montgomery. At this point, signs of Lisa’s mental illnesses became clear as her family and friends stated she began to lose touch with reality and would “slip into a world of her own.” Despite the sterilization she underwent, Lisa repeatedly claimed to be pregnant in her second marriage when she was, in fact, not. The pregnancy delusions coupled with a custody battle from her ex-husband who threatened to expose her false pregnancy claims are the events that led up to the crime Lisa committed.
In December of 2004, after falsely claiming to be pregnant since the spring, Lisa drove to the home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Skidmore, Missouri. Stinnett was eight months pregnant at the time. Using an alias and a false pretense, Lisa entered Stinnett’s home and then proceeded to strangle Stinnett with a piece of rope. When Stinnett was unconscious, Lisa used a kitchen knife she had brought with her to cut the baby out of Stinnett’s womb. Miraculously the premature baby survived the attack, and Lisa took the baby home with her to Kansas where investigators found her the next day. She claimed to have given birth to the healthy baby herself, but she eventually confessed to killing Stinnett and kidnapping the baby.
Since the crime in 2004, Lisa Montgomery has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, and traumatic brain injury. Mental health experts including a clinical psychologist have said that Lisa was clearly in a state of psychosis at the time of the crime, but prosecutors argued that Lisa had clearly spent a lot of time planning the crime, as she brought rope, a knife, and a home birthing kit with her. Further, Lisa’s legal defense at trial did not adequately present Lisa’s history of trauma and childhood abuse in supporting her insanity defense, so she was convicted in 2007. The prosecutors in Lisa’s case pursued the death penalty, and the jury recommended a death sentence for the murder and kidnapping. Lisa’s trial attorney had never worked a capital case before, and though an experienced, renowned capital defense attorney, Judy Clarke, agreed to join the defense team, Lisa’s attorney proceeded to remove her from the case. This proved to be a fateful decision as the defense he put forth was woefully inadequate and resulted in Lisa being sent to federal death row.
Many people have supported the death penalty in Lisa’s case due to the gruesome nature of the crime she committed, and the fact that the victim, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, and her family are certainly deserving of justice. But the problem in this case is not Lisa Montgomery—a woman who suffered untreated severe mental illness due to the years of torture and trauma she experienced. The problem in this case is a lack of accountability from the government and justice system. Judy Shaughnessy, the mother who prostituted her young daughter, who subjected her daughter to unconceivable sexual torture, who beat her daughter, was never held accountable for her evil acts. The numerous men who raped Lisa, including Lisa’s stepfather, her stepbrother turned husband, and the many strangers that Lisa’s mother profited from—these men were never held accountable for the overwhelming damage and trauma they inflicted on Lisa. The school administrators, law enforcement officers, judge, and other government officials in the community were never held accountable for the years of abuse perpetrated on Lisa that they knew about and chose to ignore rather than report. The prosecutors that sought the death penalty on a clearly mentally ill woman will never be held accountable for sending a victim to execution when they had the choice to allow her life imprisonment with mental health treatment. The defense team that poorly represented Lisa and failed to convey the gravity of her lengthy traumatic history will never be held accountable for their inadequate service to their client. And finally, the man who ignored the cries of a community pleading for mercy for a victim of such atrocities, Lisa’s last and final hope, Present Donald Trump will never be held accountable for failing to step in and save a woman who had suffered so much.
It’s time that we recognize the failures of the criminal justice system and enact change to better identify, save, and protect victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Lisa Montgomery was not just a woman who commit an unthinkable crime—she was a child crying out for help. A teenager begging for escape. A young mother seeking protection. A grown woman pleading for mercy. And our justice system failed her. We failed Lisa Montgomery.
Diane Mattingly, My Sister, Lisa Montgomery, Took a Life. Her Own Was Scarred By Unimaginable Abuse. Spare Her, Newsweek, (Nov. 11, 2019) https://www.newsweek.com/lisa-montgomery-life-sentence-death-row-abuse-1548750.
Jessica Lussenhop, Lisa Montgomery: Looking For Answers in the Life of a Killer, BBC News, (Jan. 11, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55587260.
Sandra Babcock, Lisa Montgomery: A Victim of Incest, Child Prostitution and Rape Faces Execution, Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, (Oct. 19, 2020) https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/lisa-montgomery-a-victim-of-incest-child-prostitution-and-rape-faces-execution/.
Ko Bragg, Lisa Montgomery Becomes First Woman to Be Executed By the Federal Government Since 1953, The 19th, (Jan. 13, 2021) https://19thnews.org/2021/01/lisa-montgomery-first-woman-executed-federal-government-since-1953/.