Jan. 12 (UPI) -- A U.S. judge late Monday granted a stay of execution for Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row in the United States, to allow the court to determine if she is mentally competent to be put to death under the Constitution.
Judge James Patrick Hanlon of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Indiana granted the stay hours before Montgomery, 52, was to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., for the 2004 killing of a pregnant woman.
Kelley Henry, Montgomery's attorney, said the court "was right" to stay the execution and order the evidentiary hearing.
"Mrs. Montgomery has brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers," Henry said in an emailed statement to UPI. "Mrs. Montgomery is mentally deteriorating and we are seeking an opportunity to prove her incompetence."
Montgomery was convicted in 2007 for killing Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, by strangulation and then using a kitchen knife to cut and remove her unborn infant from her body. The baby was returned to her father in good health the next day after Montgomery was arrested.
In October, the Justice Department announced it had scheduled Montgomery to be put to death in early December but the date was rescheduled to Tuesday after her lawyers fell sick with COVID-19.
Her legal team petitioned the court late last week following months of litigation for a stay, citing "mental illnesses and defect."
In support of the petition, her legal team presented evidence from three expert witnesses who detailed Montgomery's mental illness, each concluding that her perception of reality was distorted, Hanlon said in his order.
"Based on this evidence, the court finds that Ms. Montgomery has made a strong showing that she will be able to make the threshold showing of insanity that requires a hearing," he said.
The government's primary argument against the petition is that it should have been filed earlier, as often last-minute filings are frivolous. But Hanlon wrote that it is neither frivolous based on the evidence presented nor its timing unreasonable due to the case's procedural history and given what's at stake.
"While this court is mindful about the possibility of strategic litigation, neither that possibility or the delay outweigh the need for the stay when counsel has made a threshold showing that Ms. Montgomery is presently incompetent to be executed," he wrote.
Montgomery was one of three federal death row inmates scheduled to be put to death this week, with Corey Johnson set to die Thursday and Dustin Higgs on Friday, all in the days before President-elect Joe Biden's administration assumes power.