Lawyers for Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to face the federal death penalty in decades, asked for a delay in her execution because they caught coronavirus while working on her case.
Montgomery was convicted of strangling a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant woman in 2007 and taking her unborn baby, who survived.
She is now the only woman facing federal execution after Attorney General William Barr scheduled her for lethal injection in Indiana on Dec. 8.
Her lawyers, Amy Harwell and Kelley Henry, said in a lawsuit filed Thursday that because Barr scheduled Montgomery’s execution during the pandemic, requiring the two attorneys to travel from Nashville to Texas twice in October and again earlier this month, both of them tested positive for the virus earlier this month.
“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,” the court document said.
The two lawyers had been working remotely, which was the policy of the federal public defenders’ office, until Barr set the execution date “with no notice to Mrs. Montgomery’s lawyers.”
“They are sick because Defendant Barr recklessly scheduled Mrs. Montgomery’s execution in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the federal lawsuit filed for Montgomery by Cornell Law School’s International Human Rights Policy Advocacy Clinic.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
The court documents said Harwell and Henry are now both bedridden and unable to work on the case.
“They both have debilitating fatigue that prevents them from working on Mrs. Montgomery’s clemency application,” the court document said. “They have a range of other symptoms as well, including headaches, chills, sweats, gastrointestinal distress, inability to focus, and impaired thinking and judgment.”
The lawyers said in their court filing that Barr’s decision to to set Montgomery’s execution “during the height of the pandemic” interfered with Montgomery’s right to counsel, especially in filing clemency appeals. It has also prevented her from participating in those appeals.
“As a person with a profound mental illness, Mrs. Montgomery requires the assistance and advice of counsel,” the court filing said “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.”
Montgomery’s lawyers said their client suffers from “several mental disabilities that frequently cause her to lose touch with reality.” These had gotten worse during the pandemic because Montgomery was not able to access mental health care or her lawyers.
In response, the prison had put her in a “suicide cell” and taken her underwear from her, which her lawyers claim was particularly cruel as Montgomery is a victim of sexual abuse and her treatment has aggravated the effects of that earlier trauma.
Her lawyers said Montgomery’s case should be delayed until she can receive proper representation from her attorneys.
A hearing in district court is scheduled Monday for the two sides to share their arguments.
More than 1,000 advocates signed letters sent to the federal government that argued Montgomery’s mental illness, history of physical and sexual abuse, and her experience being sexually trafficked as a child meant that the death penalty was inappropriate in her case.
Signers of the letters included current and former prosecutors, child advocates and hundreds of organizations and individuals involved in combating violence against women.
“Although Lisa committed terrible crimes, her lifetime of extreme suffering and abuse weighs heavily in favor of clemency,” prosecutors said in one letter to President Donald Trump. “You alone have the power to grant her mercy and spare her life, and we urge you to do so.”
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