A diverse coalition of more than 1,000 advocates, including current and former prosecutors, activists fighting sex trafficking and domestic violence, and mental health organizations, have joined forces to ask President Donald Trump to halt the upcoming execution of the only woman on federal death row, Lisa Montgomery (pictured).

In a series of letters delivered to administration officials and released to the public by Montgomery’s lawyers on November 11, 2020, the advocates argue that Montgomery’s serious mental illness, brought on by a horrific history of sexual violence, physical abuse, and being sexually trafficked as a child, and exacerbated by abusive conditions of death-row confinement, make it inappropriate for the government to execute her. The letters were submitted by 43 current and former prosecutors, 800 organizations and individuals involved in efforts to combat violence against women, 100 organizations and individuals involved in anti-human trafficking efforts, 40 child advocates, 80 formerly incarcerated women, and jointly by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

On October 16, 2020, the Department of Justice announced that it had scheduled Montgomery’s execution for December 8. She is the ninth of ten federal death-row prisoners scheduled to be executed during the federal government’s unprecedented 2020 execution spree. Three executions are scheduled for November and December, which, if carried out, would be the first federal executions during a lame duck presidency in at least a century.

A Relentless History of Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse

A November 10, 2020 profile in the Huffington Post chronicles in detail the relentless abuse Montgomery endured throughout her childhood and adolescence. Montgomery was born to an alcoholic father and an abusive mother who drank heavily while pregnant with her. As a young child, she experienced physical abuse, violent fights, and the rape of her half-sister while she slept in the same bed. Her mother was physically violent and emotionally abusive throughout Montgomery’s childhood. Family members recount that Montgomery’s first sentence as a toddler was “don’t spank me.” When Montgomery was in kindergarten, her mother remarried, and her home life deteriorated even more. Montgomery’s stepfather, Jack Kleiner, is described as “an erratic, violent man who beat the kids and his wife regularly.” He reportedly would strip his daughters and Montgomery naked before beating them.

Kleiner, the Huffington Post reports, began molesting and raping Montgomery in her preteen years and would allow his friends to rape Montgomery as payment for household repairs. A cousin who is now a deputy sheriff recounts Montgomery telling him at the time of being repeatedly orally, vaginally, and anally raped. “She said it was over and over, one man right after the other, and went on for hours. … They were also physically violent. They would beat and slap her if she was ‘doing it wrong.’ When they were done, they urinated on her like she was trash.”

When Montgomery was 15, her mother divorced Kleiner. Although she had walked in on Kleiner raping Montgomery, her mother never reported the rape to authorities. After the divorce, her mother began sexually trafficking Montgomery herself, inviting men to rape her daughter in exchange for money. Montgomery was regularly gang raped to “pay” for her keep.

Montgomery married her stepbrother at 18 and began having children, giving birth to four children in less than five years before being sterilized against her will. Family members noted that her precarious mental health worsened after her sterilization. They report that Montgomery often seemed disconnected from the world around her, behaving erratically, expressing delusions, drinking heavily, having multiple car accidents, and struggling to keep a job.

When she was 36, Montgomery killed a pregnant woman and took the baby from her womb, acting as though the baby was hers.

According to clinical psychologist Katherine Porterfield of the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, the reports about Montgomery’s behavior at the time “are consistent with the idea that she was a completely impaired mentally ill nonfunctional person who was operating within the symptoms of her mental illness.” At her death penalty trial, however, Montgomery’s lawyers failed to draw a connection between her childhood trauma and the murder. As a result, prosecutors were able to portray testimony about her childhood as an “abuse excuse.”

After reviewing records and conducting a mental health evaluation of Montgomery, Porterfield concluded that Montgomery reacted to the lifetime of extreme abuse she had experienced by dissociating from reality. By the time she reached adulthood, Montgomery had “a disconnected sense of her emotions, a tenuous hold on reality, a completely warped view of human relationships, and a split and damaged sense of herself and of her body,” Porterfield said.

Broad Support for Halting Montgomery’s Execution

In recent days, a diverse coalition of supporters have written letters to join Montgomery’s request for executive clemency. Forty-one current and former prosecutors wrote a letter highlighting “Lisa’s experiences as a victim of horrific sexual violence, physical abuse, and being trafficked as a child.” They argued that trial prosecutors’ denigration of this history as an “abuse excuse” was inappropriate because evidence of this background is “critically relevant to determining the appropriate punishment of a serious crime.” In a separate letter, two prosecutors provided perspective from their experience prosecuting women accused of murders that were almost identical to Montgomery’s crime. They wrote, “We know from first-hand experience that these crimes are inevitably the product of serious mental illness.”

Letters of support for Montgomery were also provided by a group of 800 organizations and individuals who work to end violence against women, a group of 100 organizations and individuals who fight against human trafficking, 40 child advocates, 80 formerly incarcerated persons, and three of the nation’s leading advocacy organizations for people with serious mental illness and their families. The letter from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, and the Treatment Advocacy Center focuses on the importance of understanding Montgomery’s crime in the context of her severe mental illness and traumatic background. They oppose her execution because “[m]ultiple experts have concluded that Mrs. Montgomery’s crime was the product of her mental illness and brain injuries. Even today, her grip on reality is fragile, maintained only with a complex regimen of psychotropic medications that she never received before being incarcerated.”


Khaleda Rahman, Trump Urged by Over 1,000 Advocates to Stop Execution of Federal Death Row Inmate Lisa Montgomery, Newsweek, November 11, 2020; Cortlynn Stark, More than 1,000 sup­port­ers urge Trump to stop death sen­tence for Lisa Montgomery, The Kansas City Star, November 11, 2020; Kim Bellware, Trump’s record-break­ing spree of fed­er­al exe­cu­tions could come to an end under Biden, The Washington Post, November 11, 2020; Melissa Jeltsen, The Tortured Life And Tragic Crime Of The Only Woman On Death Row, Huffington Post, November 102020.

Read the let­ter from 41 cur­rent and for­mer pros­e­cu­tors here; the let­ter from two for­mer pros­e­cu­tors who pros­e­cut­ed sim­i­lar cas­es here; the let­ter from 800 orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als com­bat­ting vio­lence against women here; the let­ter for 100 anti-human traf­fick­ing orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als here; the let­ter from 40 child advo­cates here; the let­ter from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, and the Treatment Advocacy Center here; and the let­ter from 80 for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed per­sons here.