Human Rights Tribunal Calls for Stay of Execution for Lisa Montgomery

Posted on Dec 18, 2020

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the human rights body charged with overseeing Western Hemisphere nations’ compliance with human rights obligations, has called on the United States to halt the scheduled January 12, 2021 execution of Lisa Montgomery.

Citing Montgomery’s history of extreme trauma and mental illness and the irreversibility of execution, the IACHR ruled on December 1, 2020, that Montgomery had presented serious claims that her execution and her current conditions of confinement violate her human rights. The commission asked the U.S. to refrain from carrying out her execution until it could resolve the issues raised in her petition.

The preliminary ruling in the case came in response to a petition filed by lawyers from Montgomery’s legal team and the Death Penalty Clinic at Cornell Law School on November 5, that alleged the United States had committed multiple violations of Montgomery’s human rights. Montgomery’s lawyers urged the commission to issue “precautionary measures” — the equivalent of an injunction — to stay her execution.

The petition claimed that the federal government was violating Montgomery’s human rights in five distinct ways. First, it presented evidence that Montgomery suffers from debilitating mental illness and argued that, as a result, her execution violates international law and U.S. human rights obligations under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. It also asserts that the federal government “provided Mrs. Montgomery with incompetent lawyers who failed to present powerful mitigating evidence at her trial,” in violation of U.S. treaty obligations to provide fair legal process. Additionally, it charges that the U.S. violated its obligations under human rights treaties when it failed to take steps to protect Montgomery from severe child abuse and sexual violence, despite being aware that she faced imminent risk of violence. The petition also raised two issues regarding the federal government’s conduct in connection with the execution. It details the degrading conditions of confinement in which Montgomery is currently being detained and alleges that those conditions violate her human right to humane treatment. Finally, it argues that scheduling Montgomery’s execution in the midst of a global pandemic denies her access to the courts and a fair clemency process, in violation of her treaty rights to petition the government for redress and to due process.

Montgomery’s petition details a lifetime of horrific abuse compounded by institutional failures by those who were in a position to protect her. Montgomery was born with brain damage because of her mother’s alcohol use during pregnancy. Her older sister, Diane, was sexually abused while Lisa, then just four years old, was sharing the same bed. Lisa, however, was left behind when social services removed Diane from the home, subjecting her to even more savage abuse.

When Lisa was a teenager, she was raped two or three times a week by her mother’s husband, who threatened to rape her younger sister or kill her family if she resisted. At age 15, Lisa was trafficked by her mother, who sold her for sex in exchange for utilities and services. Social services investigated her situation once, but announced the visit in advance, allowing her family to hide signs of abuse. School administrators had reason to believe Lisa was being abused, but did not investigate further. Lisa’s rape was known to a doctor who was a mandated reporter and to a Child Welfare Office. But neither reported it to police or pursued further action. Because of the depth and intensity of the trauma she experienced, Montgomery developed dissociative disorder, a mental illness that severs her connection with reality. According to trauma experts, she “developed complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disease caused by pervasive, long-standing traumatic events. She would continue to re-experience her torture as if it was actually reoccurring.”

The IACHR decision requested that the federal government guarantee Montgomery conditions of detention that adhere to international human rights standards, provide her with appropriate health care for her physical and mental conditions, and refrain from executing her in order to give the commission time to reach a decision on her petition. In addressing the conditions in which the Federal Bureau of Prisons has confined Montgomery in the lead up to her execution, the commission wrote:

“The application indicates that Ms. Montgomery is held in solitary confinement in a freezing cell, under twenty-four hour video surveillance, that she is only allowed to wear a gown and not allowed to wear underwear. Since October 16, 2020, the authorities placed her in a single cell by herself, without access to any other prisoners, guarded twenty-four hours a day. She does not leave her cell, except to shower three times a week or for legal visits. Her cell includes only a concrete bunk, a rubber mattress, a sink and a toilet; the lights remain illuminated twenty-four hours a day and the lighting does not vary. The applicants indicate that, ever since she has been under these conditions, she has fainted twice.” The Commission noted that the federal government had not contested these allegations.

The commission found that the prison authorities’ refusal to allow Montgomery the use of underwear, while male guards can see her on a cell monitor at all times “depriv[es] her from any privacy or intimacy. … These conditions,” the commission wrote, “are not adequate for a woman survivor of sexual violence, especially considering the very serious information of sexual abuse during [her] life that would have caused her different traumas and illnesses.”

Montgomery was scheduled for execution on December 8, 2020, but her execution was stayed after her attorneys contracted COVID-19 as a result of traveling to meet with her. Their infections prevented them from completing Montgomery’s clemency petition in time, so a judge granted a stay, and the federal government rescheduled her execution for January 12, 2021. More than 1,000 advocates, including current and former prosecutors, activists fighting sex trafficking and domestic violence, and mental health organizations have called on President Trump to grant clemency to Montgomery.


Robert A. Cronkleton, International human rights group, U.N. experts call for stay of Lisa Montgomery exe­cu­tion, Kansas City Star, December 32020.

Read the Petition Alleging Violations of the Human Rights of Lisa Montgomery by the United States of America filed on November 5, 2020 in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the IACHR’s December 1, 2020 res­o­lu­tion on Montgomery’s case.