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Federal death row is a lonely place for a woman. Right now there is one female in the lethal holding tank: Lisa Montgomery, found guilty of murdering a pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett, 23, while visiting her in 2004 to talk about purchasing a puppy.
Inside Stinnett’s Skidmore, Mo., home, Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut an 8-month-old fetus from her victim’s womb and proceeded to walk around with the premature baby, claiming it was her own. Miraculously, the baby survived. Now, on Jan. 12, Montgomery could become only the sixth female federal inmate executed in US history. During the 21st century, 13 federal male inmates have met this fate. Since 1790, approximately 350 male inmates have been executed by the federal government.
Why the gender disparity? “The answer is that women don’t usually commit the crimes eligible for execution,” Mary Welek Atwell, author of “Wretched Sisters: Examining Gender and Capital Punishment,” told The Post. “Murder with certain aggravating circumstances are usually the ones that lead to capital punishment. But women don’t usually commit murder in the course of robbery or rape or with particular brutality. Almost all the women I studied, [they killed] someone known to them. Often it was a husband or boyfriend or, in one case, a woman with whom she was in a relationship. Usually, it grows out of years of abuse. It is not going into a 7-Eleven and shooting a clerk or torturing somebody in a basement.”
In fact, a woman on federal death row — crossing state lines in the course of a crime and kidnapping the unborn baby both made Montgomery’s crime a federal one — is so rare that there was no immediately apparent place in which to hold her.
Montgomery wound up in solitary confinement at Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas. Montgomery has been deemed mentally ill as the result of brain injuries, being serially raped by her father and sexually trafficked by her mother (clinical social worker Janet Vogelsang spent 20 hours interviewing Montgomery and told The Post that she believes Montgomery was “in a psychotic state” at the time of her crime). She “is on suicide watch 24 hours per day,” said her co-counsel, Kelley Henry.
“Men see her going to the bathroom. They put her in a suicide gown” — a thick garment that cannot be fashioned into a noose — “and took away her underwear and socks. When they gave her mesh panties, they told her, ‘Be a good girl now.’ She is allowed to go to a caged outdoor area, by herself, for a few minutes each day. She can shower three days per week. I have never had a client, male or female, treated this way. Ms. Montgomery is in a death row for one.”
Montgomery is not the first woman to endure mental and physical suffering on federal death row — a term that was coined in the 1930s when two Florida prisoners, awaiting electrocution, resided in side-by-side cells that became known as “death row.”
Back in 1865, Mary Surratt awaited execution for collaborating with John Wilkes Booth in the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. The first woman to face a federal death penalty, Surratt was deemed to have committed an act of war. She was placed in solitary confinement, multiple cells away from three men convicted of the same crime. “From inside her cell, she was able to hear the sound of gallows being built,” said Kate Clifford Larson, author of “The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.”
“The builders of the gallows had to make sure the hanging equipment would work.” So they did dry runs. As hanging day neared, Surratt, who was said to be suffering from “female problems” (Larson believes it was a urinary tract infection), “kept hearing the snap of the platform dropping.”
En route to being the first woman federally executed, she was also the first to stand trial for a federal capital crime. Though she was savvy enough to hire a high-profile lawyer — an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer called her “the female fiend incarnate” — she probably could have used some fashion advice. During the trial, said Larson, “Mary wore a black veil over her face. She thought it made her look pious but it actually made her look evil.”
Surratt, in her early 40s at the time of her death, and her conspirators met their fate on the early afternoon of July 7, 1865, nearly three months after the assassination. Some 100 people watched Surratt walk, flanked by soldiers, to the gallows. She wore a black bonnet and the courthouse veil. Surratt collapsed en route to the hanging platform and soldiers carried her up the steps. Her bonnet was replaced with a hood. The noose encircled Surratt’s neck and the bottom dropped out from under her.
“Mary was a terrible, unlikable, slave-owning woman,” said Larson, but some tried to salvage Surratt’s reputation after the execution. “People made careers writing about how terrible it was to hang a woman. There was still a lot of pro-South sentiment and Mary was made a martyr for the cause.”
During the 1890s, two more women — Mary O’Cammon and Kate Mcshane — faced federal execution for crimes committed in San Francisco. No records or news reports of their misdeeds exist, likely because there was a media movement at the time not to publicize executions. Unlike Ethel Rosenberg, who was a media sensation. She and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, made international headlines on March 29, 1951, when they were found guilty of conspiracy to provide military secrets to the Soviet Union. One week later, the couple was sentenced to death on the Espionage Act of 1917.
Michael Meeropol, then the 8-year-old son of Julius and Ethel, remembers visiting his mother in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where she awaited electrocution. “My brother would sit on [Ethel’s] lap, hugging and kissing,” Meeropol, 77, told The Post.
“Me and my parents used to play hangman together. How do you like that for a visit to the death-house?”
‘Men see her going to the bathroom … Ms. Montgomery is in a death row for one.’
lawyer Kelley Henry on death-row inmate Lisa Montgomery
Beginning in 1890 — with the aid of Thomas Edison’s engineers — the electric chair replaced hanging as an increasingly palatable form of execution. “It was believed to be more reliable; hangmen did not always know what they were doing and people did not always die right away,” said Atwell, acknowledging that the chair had its own drawbacks. “The electric chair carried the possibility for a person to be fried and not killed. Men were electrified in their underwear but that didn’t seem decent for women. So they were executed in their pajamas.” Both men and women “had to be completely shaved.”
Life on Sing Sing’s death row was worse for Ethel than it was for Julius. “She said she was in a room like a tomb and did not see anyone,” said Meeropol, who co-wrote “We Are Your Sons” with his brother, Robert. “My father was with other men. He talked to them and played chess with them. But every week guards would bring my father to my mother. They brought him there in a rolling cell. He and my mother would talk and she would refer to herself as a monkey in a cage. I remember a poem she wrote to my father: ‘Who’s afraid of the electric chair, they can shove it up my spine for all I care.’ ”
After two years, lawyers exhausted all appeals. Ethel and her husband were set for execution on Friday, June 19, 1953. “It was petitioned that the execution be moved to after the Sabbath,” said Meeropol, who took on the name of his adoptive parents after his biological parents were executed when he was 10. “But they did it at 8:00 instead of 11:00 [on Friday night], rather than waiting until Saturday night, which may have meant moving it to Monday.”
Through it all, Ethel, who died at 37, did the motherly thing: She shielded her kids from the harshness of life. “My mother discussed in a letter that if any of us ask what the execution is like, just say it is painless and we don’t expect it to happen. She tried to parent from jail.”
Later that year, on Sept. 28, 1953, Bonnie Brown Heady, a broke divorcee of ill repute who reportedly drank a quart of whiskey per day, met her maker via the federal government. Her demise, at age 41, stemmed from the role she played in the kidnapping and premeditated murder of a 6-year-old boy named Bobby Greenlease Jr.
She and her boyfriend/accomplice, an ex con named Carl Hall, targeted the son of a millionaire Cadillac dealer, said to be the richest man in Kansas City, Mo. She lured Bobby from his Catholic school, claiming to be the boy’s aunt. Once Bobby was in their clutches, Hall shot the kid, buried him in a shallow grave and called Bobby Greenlease Sr. with a demand of $600,000 in 24 hours. The money arrived and the couple lit out for St. Louis. A suspicious taxi driver there turned Hall in to the police and Hall rolled over on Heady.
The pair were found guilty, sentenced to death and imprisoned in adjoining cells at Missouri State Penitentiary. “They were allowed out each day, for an hour or so, and sat next to each another,” John Heidenry, author of “Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease,” told The Post. “The warden was stern but folksy. I think he sat between them and they talked to one another.”
On death row for only a month, they were executed just 81 days after young Greenlease’s murder. During that time, according to Heidenry, Hall discovered God and Heady discovered William Faulkner. She wrote an apology to Bobby Jr.’s mother — though Heidenry describes it as “less than 100-percent heartfelt.” According to The New York Times, hours before their execution, Hall and Heady ate fried chicken at a table pushed up against Hall’s cell, smiling and conversing for about 30 minutes.
At around 11:30 p.m., they were led out of the prison for transport to the execution chamber, a two-story structure situated a short ride away. “It was the dark of night and other prisoners made fun of them, yelling, ‘Bye, Bonnie’ and ‘Pour it on ‘em,’ ” Heidenry said. “A woman warden, who had become friendly with Heady, gave her a sweater to wear for the walk. At the gas chamber, they were strapped into chairs side by side. An Episcopalian priest blessed them. Heady said to Hall, ‘I love you.’ He replied, ‘I love you, too.’ One of the witnesses was Bobby’s father. He watched as the chamber filled with cyanide gas, mixed with something that clouded the chamber so they could not be seen dying. Eventually, the gas chamber became completely opaque.”
If, 68 years later, Lisa Montgomery becomes the next woman federally put to death, there will be no gas in the air, or an electric chair. She will die via lethal injection, which has replaced the chair in most jurisdictions.
“States moved away from the electric chair in the early 2000s because it is gruesome and states became concerned about the constitutionality of it; only Virginia and Tennessee have used it in the last decade,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told The Post. “But, given the problem of lethal injections — evidence has shown that prisoners experience sensations of waterboarding and drowning for 15 minutes [prior to expiring] — five prisoners in Tennessee have opted for the electric chair, which they consider torturous but quicker.”
Defending the first woman on federal death row since 1953, lawyers on Montgomery’s case are working feverishly to at least delay her execution. The Jan. 12 date was set by the Bureau of Prisons at the request of then Attorney General William Barr.
Their appeal — made to the Pardon Attorney, an officer with the Department of Justice, whose recommendation will work its way to the White House Counsel — is based on a claim that the government acted illegally in setting the current execution date because it was done while a stay of execution was still in effect.
“We seek to obtain a full and fair clemency process, which cannot happen in the short amount of time given to us by this premature execution date,” said attorney Henry.
Ultimately, President Trump has the right to save Montgomery’s life. “Clemency power gives him the ability to grant her a commutation, which would change her sentence from death to imprisonment without parole,” Leigh Goodmark, co-director of the clinical law program at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, told The Post.
Defense attorneys argue that the shattered mental state of Montgomery should allow for her life to be spared and maintain that other women convicted of similar crimes are not facing the death penalty. As stated in the petition, “Our country has long recognized that mental illness is a mitigating factor and calls for a lesser punishment.”
After the disturbing violence seen on Capitol Hill last week, incited by the president, lawyers hope Trump uses the moment to prove to the world he has a sympathetic side. “The president can do that,” Dunham said. “He has absolute authority to grant a reprieve.”
Henry recently told Fox News, Trump “can be a hero” by making a “very public statement about the importance of ending the stigmatization of mental illness.”
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