In Lisa Montgomery, formerly incarcerated women see echoes of their own stories: ‘She never had a chance to just live’

Criminal justice advocates say the profound abuse she suffered as a child is not unusual for women in prisons
Anne Branigin

Updated Jan. 12 at 1:07 p.m. Eastern time to reflect the latest updates to Lisa Montgomery’s case.

(Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Depar/AFP Getty; iStock; Lily illustration)

There are few who would defend Lisa Montgomery’s actions from Dec. 16, 2004. On that day, Montgomery, then 36, drove to the home of a pregnant woman she had befriended online, Bobbie Jo Stinnet, and strangled her with a piece of rope. Afterward, she cut the baby from Stinnet’s stomach and took the newborn home with her. When police encountered Montgomery at her home the next day, they found Montgomery cradling the baby. She confessed to the killing, ultimately receiving a federal death sentence for her crime.

Montgomery was part of a final surge of federal executions pushed by the Trump administration in its last days, with an execution date scheduled for Tuesday. But late Monday, a federal court delayed her execution, ruling that there was enough evidence to suggest Montgomery is not mentally competent enough to understand, let alone be killed for, her crime. The Trump administration has since asked the Supreme Court to intervene and allow Montgomery’s execution to go forward.

Cited in Monday’s ruling is a lifetime of physical and sexual abuse so horrific that psychologists familiar with her case have referred to it as “torture.” For her advocates, some of whom are formerly incarcerated survivors of sexual assault, executing Montgomery would send a strong signal that the violence and trauma they’ve suffered — the crimes they themselves were victim to — do not matter.

Women who have experienced sexual and physical abuse are overrepresented in the United States criminal justice system, says Serena Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children of Long Island, an advocacy group that provides help to women who have been imprisoned. Liguori points out that in New York state, 9 out of 10 incarcerated women have experienced sexual or physical abuse before their incarceration. This pattern can be found throughout the country: In Illinois, a 2010 report found that 98 percent of incarcerated women were victims of physical abuse before entering prison; 75 percent of all female inmates had been sexually abused. The Vera Institute of Justice estimates that, nationwide, 86 percent of women had a history of trauma, physical or sexual abuse before their arrest.

“Executing Lisa Montgomery sends a message to every single woman and person who survives violence that their lives don’t matter and that it’s acceptable to abuse people to the point where they hurt others,” Liguori said. “It’s incredibly harmful that we still have a death penalty for women who are survivors of horrific trauma.”

That feeling was shared among other formerly incarcerated women who are survivors of physical and sexual abuse who say the violence they experienced is inextricable from the crime they were convicted of. Not only do they see elements of their struggles in Montgomery’s case, they drew many parallels between Montgomery’s circumstances and women they met while in prison.

Among them is Robyn Hasan, who was given a 10-year sentence in 2010 for “computer theft”: As a payroll manager, Hasan redirected funds from her employer into her own account for a year. At the time, Hasan was in an abusive relationship with her husband of nine years while living in Dallas. She says her husband would beat her so often that she was frequently in and out of the hospital. Hasan did what women are told to do: call the police. She called them so frequently that, one day, she says they threatened to arrest her if she called them anymore.

After another beating, Hasan did, once again, call the police.

“They kept their word and they put me in jail,” she said.

A judge who saw her case threw that charge out, but the arrest remained on her record. Hasan eventually fled Dallas, relocating with her daughter to Atlanta to escape her husband, who she says used to show up at her home in the middle of the night and rape her. According to Hasan, when she told the police about her husband’s behavior, they told her that they could not keep him from entering his own home.

Hasan said she was driven to theft because she had little choice: She made too much money to be eligible for government assistance programs, like food stamps, but not enough to pay for day care while she worked as a single mother. Her husband offered no help with child support. Had she been able to access meal programs or affordable child care, Hasan says, she wouldn’t have felt so desperate.

Since her release last year, Hasan now works at the criminal justice advocacy group Women on the Rise Georgia, where she is an executive assistant and campaign coordinator. The group is made up of many formerly incarcerated women, including Bridgette Simpson, who served 10 years for being an accessory to armed robbery after her car was used in the commission of a crime. Simpson denies having any knowledge or involvement in the robbery, which happened as she was trying to escape an abusive partner.

Like Hasan, she recounted years of asking for help.

“I remember black eyes. I remember he slammed my head into a computer screen. I remember he hit me in my face with a bat. I remember being in the back of a trunk for, like, four days, choking on my blood,” Simpson said.

She called the police, but they didn’t do anything. Nor did her family.

“I called and asked my uncle to help me. And he told me sometimes men need to discipline their women,” she said.

What strikes her about Montgomery’s case is how much it reminds her of many other women she met in prison — women with severe mental health issues or who, like her, were profoundly impacted by years of violence. One woman she met had the “learning ability of a small child,” she said. Another had a husband who beat her “every single day.”

“She begged and begged, and no one helped her. And then she took matters in her own hands,” Simpson said. “The stories, they never stop. They go on and on and on. And they never stop. They never stop at all.”

Montgomery also called out for help, family and acquaintances say. As a child, they said she was routinely raped and beaten by her stepfather and his friends in a shed outside the trailer they lived in. Her mother also allegedly took part in the abuse, allowing handymen and plumbers to sexually assault Montgomery in exchange for work done on their home, reports the BBC. As a teenager, Montgomery confided in her cousin, then a sheriff’s deputy. He admitted he did nothing to stop the abuse, Montgomery’s defense team says.

For Aminah Elster, there was no one she could turn to when she experienced and witnessed domestic violence in her household as a child — “the people in my immediate community or family were equally unhealthy and unable to help me to get out of situations that I was in,” she said.

She would end up falling in love with and marrying a felon. Elster believed he could protect her, she told Berkeley News last year, but it wasn’t long before he, too, became violent with her. When her then-husband was sent back to prison for violating his parole, Elster cut off the relationship and began seeing someone else. Upon his release, Elster’s estranged husband tracked her down and threatened to kill her if she didn’t tell him where he could find her boyfriend. Her husband’s brother ended up killing Elster’s lover, and Elster was charged as an accomplice to murder for giving up his location. She was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Elster says it wasn’t until her incarceration, where she participated in peer groups, that she realized her situation isn’t unique.

“We all have similar stories of trauma and abuse or sexual abuse,” Elster said. “It is not uncommon.”

Elster is now a campaign and policy director for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which pushes for more humane conditions for incarcerated women and transgender people and helps them reenter society at the end of their prison terms. The Montgomery case is an example of what she calls “the criminalization of survivors.” She’s haunted by the fact that, with her impending execution, Montgomery will never experience freedom from abuse: “She never had a chance to just live.”

The case brings up similarities to Cyntoia Brown and Chrystul Kizer, both of whom were sex-trafficked and abused as teenagers and charged with killing their alleged traffickers. Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison, was released after serving 15 years when her sentence was commuted by then-Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) in 2019. Kizer has been released on bond while she awaits trial on charges of arson and first-degree intentional homicide.

Montgomery did not kill her abuser, but the violence she suffered and the violence she perpetrated cannot be untangled, survivor advocates argue. And while women are far less likely to be sentenced to death than men are, gender dynamics routinely play a part in the kinds of crimes they are punished for.

“There’s a huge divide in terms of how women and men are treated in the criminal justice system,” Liguori said. In Long Island, as many as 8 in 10 incarcerated women are also mothers. These women would tell Liguori that judges suggest that because they are moms, they ought to have known better than to participate in a crime — and hand down harsher sentences as a result.

“Women are often judged as mothers or caretakers and much more harshly than men, even for nonviolent offenses,” she added.

Hasan points to the recent case of Kelly Gissendaner, a Georgia woman executed in 2015 for plotting the murder of her husband, Doug Gissendaner. Her co-conspirator was her lover, Greg Owen, who stabbed Doug to death. In a plea deal, Owen received a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying against Kelly; he received a life sentence, with the possibility of parole after serving 25 years.

“People get very riled up about when a woman commits a crime against a child or when a woman kills her husband,” Hasan said. “I think because society feels like this should not be a place for women.”

Prison also exacerbates many mental health issues for female inmates, who are much more likely than the general population to have undiagnosed, severe mental health issues. Multiple women described being fed a steady diet of sedatives while in prison, rather than being given substantive mental health treatments. Like Montgomery’s advocates, they point to the intense mental strain she must have been under as a result of decades of abuse. Simpson believes Montgomery must have suffered a “psychotic break” that led her to commit her heinous crime.

Simpson is now an advocate for incarcerated women, hosting a podcast called “Brijects,” which features conversations with prison abolitionists and other criminal justice advocates to help the formerly incarcerated transition back to “normal” life. She’s baffled by why President Trump would prioritize federal executions when coronavirus cases have spiraled out of control across the United States.

“My grandma right now is in the hospital and ICU with covid,” she said. “And the priority is to execute people on death row.”

Executing Montgomery would do nothing to curb the cycle of trauma and violence that drives many women to be convicted of serious crimes, Simpson and others argue. They recognize that Montgomery’s crime is unspeakable. But killing her will not prevent other women from committing heinous acts, they say. Instead, women who have been abused need access to resources — safe places to stay, funds if they are in crisis, and other support services that can keep them and their families safe. And they need more people to take their stories seriously.

“I’ll have to say that I did not understand until it was me,” Simpson said. “I really thought that it was black and white. It was right and wrong. But it’s so much more gray than that.”

Anne Branigin

Anne Branigin is a staff writer for The Lily. Previously, she worked at the Root covering news, politics, health and social justice movements through the lens of race and gender.