[Trigger Warning: sexual assault and violence]
To say that Lisa Montgomery grew up in a dysfunctional family would be a gross understatement. When Lisa was eleven (about the age in the photo above), her stepfather sexually assaulted her, something he continued to do for years. When her mother discovered the abuse, instead of protecting Lisa, she forced Lisa to become a child prostitute. Lisa suffered brain damage as the result of repeated beatings she suffered—as well as from her mother’s abuse of alcohol during pregnancy. Years of what can only be described as sexual torture left Lisa with severe mental illness. Lisa tried to escape by marrying when she was 18. Both her first and second marriages led to further abuse.
Lisa had four children and was involuntarily sterilized. Lisa’s mental and relationship instability apparently led to a desire to have another child. Lisa met Bobbie Jo Stinnett at dog shows and developed a friendship. When Lisa discovered that Bobbie Jo was pregnant, Lisa, in the midst of a psychotic episode, went to Bobbie Jo’s house and strangled her. She then cut the baby from Bobbie Jo’s womb to raise as her own child.
The next day Lisa was arrested and later confessed to the crime. She was charged with a federal crime of kidnapping resulting in death. At her trial medical experts testified to Lisa’s mental illness and that she was unable to discern what she was doing. In the grips of her psychosis, she lost touch with the reality of her actions. The jury didn’t accept the testimony of the medical experts. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. Her history of abuse was not entered into the court proceedings. She remained on death row for thirteen years and was executed on January 13, 2021. She was the first woman executed by the federal government in 67 years.
Was justice done in this case? What do you think constitutes a just society? These are decisions that are very personal to each of us. While each of us have different thoughts about justice, there is still a need for us to reach a societal answer to these questions.
Our need for a societal response evokes more questions:
- How absolute or unequivocal should the response be? Should we adopt a “one style fits all” approach or should we decide based upon each situation?
- If we take a situational approach, who decides what is appropriate? And how do we ensure that deciders are being fair in their deliberations?
- If our decisions about justice depend on a person’s ability to be held morally and legally accountable for their actions, how much does this accountability depend on the mental and psychological capacities of that person? And what role should science play in making these decisions?
- How do we adapt our approach for ensuring justice as society evolves its thinking about what is just? What once was considered just may no longer be considered so.
Just imagine if each of had to face these difficult decisions. How do you think justice should have been administered in cases like Lisa’s? If we think the execution of Lisa Montgomery was just, would our position change if we had to be the one to administer the lethal injection? What levels of accountability should we have as individuals and as a society for these decisions about justice? Just imagine how just decisions might be made in order to be truly representative of the true feelings of our citizenry. Just imagine a society where justice is administered in a way that ensures those decisions represents the best of our societal morals and values.
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“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts. – Mahatma Gandhi
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.