[CW: Rape, abuse, torture]
This week, after people died at the U.S. Capitol, in the middle of a pandemic and with the promise of new impeachment hearings, President Trump is planning to execute three more people.
Continuing a killing spree that began in 2020 after 17 years without a federal execution, Trump will have carried out 13 executions in his last 7 months as president. No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had that many executions, and Roosevelt didn’t kill that many people so quickly.
The man who announced to the world, before he was president, that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it — to the amens of “pro-life” evangelicals — turned out to be serious. Trump has been carrying out executions at a rate that we have not seen since the 1800s. Don’t miss that: We haven’t seen anything like this in over 100 years.
One of those slated for execution is Lisa Montgomery. If the execution goes forward, Ms. Montgomery will be the first woman executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.
As I studied and read about her life, I felt sick to my stomach. As early as 3 years old, Montgomery lay in bed next to her sister Diane as she was raped by their babysitter, a man who was supposed to watch over them.
At age 11, her stepfather began raping her, repeatedly, weekly. He built a torture room for her beside their trailer in Oklahoma and cut a hole in the wall of his trailer so he could spy on her. He raped and sodomized her with regularity, at times slamming her against the floor so hard she suffered traumatic brain injury, now confirmed by MRI medical reports.
As she grew into a young woman, her stepfather invited friends over to gang rape her, oftentimes in that little torture room he created for her — there were times she was raped for hours at a time, urinated upon. Her mother did not defend her as sick, seditious, evil things were done to her — quite the opposite, her mom held her at gunpoint and blamed her for the problems and offered her daughter for sexual favors to pay handymen working on their house.
At 17, Montgomery was pressured to become engaged to her stepbrother, who continued the cycle of torture and abuse. She was involuntarily sterilized. The tortures she has endured fill a 184-page legal document.
No one stepped in — no social workers, no child protection workers, no teachers, no police, no pastors — no one. Her family failed her. Society failed her. The church failed her.
After years of this nightmare of a life, Montgomery went to the home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a woman she met on the internet, apparently to buy a puppy, but she ended up killing Stinnett. In a psychotic episode, Montgomery strangled her with a rope and cut the eight-month-old fetus from Stinnett’s womb and took it home with the intention of raising the baby as her own. It was an unimaginable act of horror by a woman who had experienced a life of unimaginable horrors.
Any reasonable person who hears about this crime is appalled — we should be worried if we are not deeply shocked and saddened. Most people I’ve told say something like: “How could anyone in their right mind do something like that!” I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone say, “That woman is crazy.” And that is the point. No one in their right mind would do something like this.
When people hear more about Lisa’s life, they start to understand a little more how someone could do such an unthinkable act. No one defends Lisa’s actions or suggests she should not be institutionalized.
The real question is not whether Lisa Montgomery is mentally ill, but who we are — who we want to be as a nation. Is the best answer to what we know about Montgomery to kill her? Is that the best ending to such a terrible story? Is that the best version of justice we have?
When we think of the death penalty, we like to think that we are executing the worst of the worst, but the truth is, in the words of Sandra Babcock, one of the experts who has worked with Lisa: “Lisa is not the worst of the worst — she is the most broken of the broken.”
She’s also the poorest of the poor. Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t get the death penalty. Charles Manson died of natural causes in prison. Harvard-educated Ted Kaczynski is still alive. Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to die on Tuesday.
As a Christian, I cannot help but think of Jesus’ interactions with women, especially those who were abused and broken and demon-possessed. Women perhaps not that unlike Lisa Montgomery. He healed a Syrophoenician woman whom many people did not even consider to be human but numbered among “the dogs.” Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman who had been with six different men and was so ashamed that she walked to get water in the heat of the day to avoid the crowds.
There is the woman who was about to be executed. Jesus interrupted her execution.
In the scene from the Gospel of John, a woman is dragged before the entire town, humiliated in public, her execution, duly ordered by law, imminent. Men are armed with stones and ready to kill her.
Jesus enters the circle of armed men, and he writes in the dirt. We don’t know exactly what he wrote, but he looked up and said to the men, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” At other times he taught that if you’ve looked at someone with lust in your eyes, you’ve committed adultery in your heart. If you’ve called someone a fool, you’re a murderer.
All the men scatter, and we are left with just Jesus and the woman. Jesus says to her, “Where’d they all go?” The message is clear. The only one who has any right to throw a stone had absolutely no desire. The closer we get to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people.
None of us is above reproach and none of us is beyond redemption. That is a core truth of the Christian faith. And it is a truth that is undermined every time we execute someone.
Jesus himself said that he did not come for the healthy, but for the sick. Lisa Montgomery is sick. According to Jesus, we are, too. We may not have killed anyone, but that doesn’t give us the right to execute someone who has. As my friend Sister Helen Prejean often says — the question becomes not simply “does someone deserve to die,” but “do we deserve to kill?”
Killing is wrong no matter whether it is done by a criminal or by a mentally ill woman or by a governor or by a president.
We can do better than killing to show that killing is wrong.
The story of Lisa Montgomery can have a better ending than execution.