Federal execution of woman who cut baby from womb halted for new hearing

National News

FILE – This undated file image of Lisa Montgomery shows the woman who In 2004, killed a pregnant woman, cut a baby from her womb and then passed off the newborn as her own. (Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery via AP)

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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.

Details of the crime at times left jurors in tears during her trial.

Prosecutors told the jury Montgomery drove about 170 miles from her Melvern, Kansas, farmhouse to the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy from Stinnett. She strangled Stinnett performing a crude cesarean and fleeing with the baby.

Prosecutors said Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from her womb. Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up in the parking lot of a Long John Silver’s in Topeka, Kansas, telling him she had delivered the baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing center.

Montgomery was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, who is now 16 years old and hasn’t spoken publicly about the tragedy.

The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady on Dec. 18, 1953, for the kidnapping and murder of a 6-year-old boy in Missouri.

The last woman executed by a state was Kelly Gissendaner, 47, on Sept. 30, 2015, in Georgia. She was convicted of murder in the 1997 slaying of her husband after she conspired with her lover, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death.

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