Two lawyers for Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, have contracted the coronavirus after repeat visits to see her.
Montgomery is the first woman set to be executed by the federal government in almost 70 years. She suffers from severe mental illness and is a victim of childhood abuse and sex trafficking.
A lawsuit filed on Thursday requests a stay of execution until Montgomery’s attorneys are able to fully participate in the clemency process. Her lawyers are virtually bedridden, according to court documents, and are experiencing debilitating fatigue.
Montgomery’s clemency application is due on Nov. 15.
Both her attorneys are suffering from “headaches, chills, sweats, gastrointestinal distress, inability to focus, and impaired thinking and judgment,” says the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Cornell Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
The Trump administration resumed executions in federal death penalty cases this summer, after a 17-year hiatus. So far, seven people on federal death row have been executed.
On Oct. 16, the Department of Justice announced that Montgomery would be executed on Dec. 8. Montgomery’s attorneys, Assistant Federal Public Defenders Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell, were given just 30 days to prepare a clemency application for her.
Both attorneys traveled to visit Montgomery in prison in Carswell, Texas, three days after her execution was set. Harwell visited Montgomery again on Oct. 26, and then both lead attorneys saw her on Nov. 2. They tested positive for coronavirus the following week.
Each trip involved two plane fights, hotel stays and exposure to dozens of people, including prison staff.
They are currently quarantined. According to the lawsuit, they are not able to enter their offices to access their paper files in Montgomery’s case, or travel to meet with their client and to speak to witnesses.
“Mrs. Montgomery’s mental health — and the extent to which she is able to grasp what is happening to her — lies at the core of her efforts to obtain a reprieve and a commutation of her sentence to life imprisonment,” the lawsuit reads. “For this reason, among others, it is vital that counsel be able to meet with Mrs. Montgomery in person to evaluate her mental status. This is particularly vital since, as a result of the pandemic, the mental health experts who have evaluated Mrs. Montgomery in the past are unable to travel to the prison.”
A coalition of over a thousand prosecutors, anti-violence advocates and mental health experts sent letters to President Donald Trump on Wednesday, asking him to commute her sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end the federal death penalty.
In an interview, Sandra Babcock, faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said it was outrageous that the Department of Justice is continuing to execute people on death row in the current environment. The American Civil Liberties Union released findings earlier this year that suggested that federal executions may have resulted in a spike in coronavirus cases.
“[Montgomery’s attorneys’] illness is directly traceable to the government’s irresponsible decision to schedule this execution in the middle of a pandemic,” Babcock said. “It is really just beyond the pale.”