Death row inmate asks for stay of execution during COVID-19 pandemic

Two lawyers representing Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to face the federal death penalty in nearly 70 years, have moved to delay her execution because they contracted the coronavirus while working on her case, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 

The lawsuit blames Attorney General William Barr for scheduling the execution during a pandemic. 

Montgomery, who was convicted 13 years ago of strangling an 8-month pregnant woman and cutting the baby from the womb to pass off as her own, is to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 8 at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, Indiana. 

Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons on Oct. 16 to set a date for the execution. 

Since then, lawyers Amy Harwell and Kelley Henry traveled at least twice from Tennessee to Texas, where Montgomery is held at FMC Carswell in Fort Worth. 

"Each round trip involved two plane flights, transit through two airports, hotel stays, and interaction with dozens of people including airline attendants, car rental employees, passengers, and prison guards,” according to the motion filed last Thursday. 

According to the filing, Montgomery’s lawyers are unable to represent her “through no fault of their own,” and, if Barr had not taken action during the middle of the pandemic, “counsel would not have been stricken with the disease that is ravaging the country.” Also because of COVID-19, “experts familiar with her case cannot assess her mental state and therefore cannot participate in the clemency process.” 

Both lawyers were working remotely before Barr set the execution date, according to court documents.

The lawsuit also argues that Montgomery has “several mental disabilities that frequently cause her to lose touch with reality,” which have gotten worse during the pandemic without frequent access to mental health experts and her attorneys.

Her lawyers claim that as her mental health deteriorated, the prison placed Montogemry in a "suicide cell" and took her underwear away. They argue it was traumatic for their client because Montgomery is herself a victim of rape, incest and child sex trafficking.

"As a person with a profound mental illness, Mrs. Montgomery requires the assistance and advice of counsel," according to the filing. "And as a person with a history of extreme trauma induced by overwhelming sexual violence, she requires careful and compassionate legal representation by the lawyers who have spent many years earning her trust."

Her lawyers want to delay the case until Montgomery can get proper representation. A hearing is scheduled for Monday. 

More than 1,000 advocates, including current and former prosecutors organized through Cornell Law School, signed letters asking President Trump to stop Montgomery’s execution and commit her sentence to life without parole. The broad coalition of groups argued Montgomery’s execution would be unconscionable, given she suffers from extreme mental illness and endured relentless physical, emotional and sexual abuse, including being raped by a stepfather and gang-raped by his friends as a child and being trafficked by her own mother as a teen to men for money.