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Judges issues stay for death row inmate who killed pregnant woman, stole baby

Nov. 19 (UPI) -- A federal judge on Thursday granted a stay of execution for a woman convicted of murdering a pregnant Missouri woman and stealing her baby -- after her lawyers contracted COVID-19.

Lisa Montgomery, 52, of Kansas, was scheduled to be executed Dec. 8 at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, Ind. District Judge Randolph Moss of the District of Columbia said Montgomery's two lawyers should have the time to "present a meaningful petition for a reprieve or commutation of sentence" to President Donald Trump.

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Since both defense lawyers -- Amy Harwell and Kelley Henry -- have COVID-19 and are experiencing "debilitating symptoms," the judge blocked the U.S. government from executing Montgomery until Dec. 31.

"The district court's ruling gives Lisa Montgomery a meaningful opportunity to prepare and present a clemency application after her attorneys recover from COVID," said Sandra Babcock, another of Montgomery's lawyers.

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"Mrs. Montgomery's case presents compelling grounds for clemency, including her history as a victim of gang rape, incest, and child sex trafficking, as well as her severe mental illness. She will now have the opportunity to present this evidence to the president with a request that he commute her sentence to life imprisonment."

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Montgomery was sentenced to death in 2007 for the 2004 death of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Prosecutors said Montgomery visited Stinnett's home under the guise of purchasing a puppy. Once there, though, she strangled the woman, who was eight months pregnant, then cut the baby from her body. Montgomery tried to pass the newborn off as her own.

Police later recovered the baby and returned her safe to her father.

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Montgomery's lawyers have visited her multiple times since the federal government scheduled her execution in October, traveling from Nashville to Fort Worth, Texas, by air and making use of rental cars and hotels.

Montgomery is housed at Federal Medical Center Carswell, but would be transferred to the facility at Terre Haute if her execution proceeds.

Three days after their Nov. 2 visit, attorney Amy Harwell became ill with COVID-19 symptoms and fellow attorney Kelley Henry lost her sense of smell, according to court documents filed by the defense team.

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Cornell Law School's International Human Rights Clinic, which is representing Montgomery, said the pandemic has made it difficult for her attorneys to do the investigations necessary to give her effective counsel in the last weeks before her scheduled execution.

"Mrs. Montgomery's lawyers cannot represent her because they are seriously ill, through no fault of their own. On the contrary, they are sick because Defendant [Attorney General William] Barr recklessly scheduled Mrs. Montgomery's execution in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Barr's action, counsel would not have been stricken with the disease that is ravaging the country. But the pandemic affects more than counsel. Because of COVID-19, the experts familiar with her case cannot assess her mental state and therefore cannot participate in the clemency process," the lawsuit says.

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Earlier this month, hundreds of supporters, anti-domestic violence groups and prosecutors sent letters to President Donald Trump asking him to commute Montgomery's death sentence. They said she should be spared the death penalty because she has severe mental illness after experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse as a child. They said her mother trafficked her as a teenager.

Barr resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus. Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken were executed in July; Lezmond Mitchell and Keith Dwayne Nelson in August; and William LeCroy and Vialva in September.

Several of the inmates attempted to have their executions delayed because of the pandemic, but were unsuccessful.

The federal government is expected to carry out its eighth execution this year Thursday -- that of Orlando Hall.

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