Lawyers for Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, filed a petition on Monday evening asking President Donald Trump to delay their client’s execution until they are well enough to prepare her clemency application.
Both of Montgomery’s lead lawyers are sick with the coronavirus after visiting their client multiple times at a federal women’s medical prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
Montgomery, who is mentally ill and was a victim of extreme childhood abuse, including sex trafficking by her parents, is scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 8. She was convicted in 2007 of killing a pregnant woman and kidnapping her baby, a crime her lawyers say occurred during a psychotic episode.
Montgomery, now 52, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, and cerebellar dysfunction. In prison, she requires a cocktail of psychotropic drugs to function, but cycles in and out of touch with reality, according to mental health experts who have examined her.
Her attorneys filed the petition with the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, which vets clemency applications for the president. The petition asks the president to either grant a reprieve of Montgomery’s execution date or commute her death sentence to life without parole.
The short petition is only a “placeholder” until the lawyers are recovered enough to prepare Montgomery’s full clemency application, which is likely to run hundreds of pages and include expert statements and letters of support.
“Mrs. Montgomery’s two capital qualified lawyers, Kelley Henry and Amy Harwell, are unable to provide you with the information we know you would want to have before deciding whether or not to spare this incredibly mentally ill woman’s life because we contracted COVID-19 from visiting Mrs. Montgomery at the prison after she received notice of the execution date,” the petition reads. “None of us want to abandon our client. We should not have to choose between our lives and our client’s life. We did not ask to be put in this situation. We did our jobs and got sick.”
The petition included a letter from a doctor who reviewed the health of both lawyers to determine their capacity to work.
“The symptoms Ms. Harwell and Ms. Henry exhibit all fit with more severe symptoms of COVID-19,” the physician wrote. “They are very serious and concerning from a medical perspective.”
We should not have to choose between our lives and our client’s life. We did not ask to be put in this situation. We did our jobs and got sick.” Lawyers for Lisa Montgomery who are sick with COVID-19
Both attorneys are in “precarious physical health conditions” and should endeavor to fully recover from the illness before they return to work, the doctor added.
“If I were their personal physician, I would recommend a minimum of 4 weeks of recovery at home, without the demands and stresses of professional obligations, before considering return to work,” he wrote. “The focus on rehabilitation requires allowances for them to heal so as to avoid irreparable damage during this critical recovery period.”
Harwell and Henry’s boss, Federal Public Defender for the Middle District of Tennessee Henry Martin, also wrote a letter urging Trump to grant a reprieve.
“In my thirty-five years as a Federal Public Defender, I have shepherded my staff through many trying times: government shutdowns, sequester, budget cuts,” he wrote. “None of those situations compares with the challenges we face during this pandemic. We simply cannot provide you with the information we know you would want to have before making a decision about whether to spare Mrs. Montgomery’s life.”
Montgomery’s lawyers have also asked a U.S. judge for more time to prepare a clemency petition. A decision in that lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Cornell Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, is expected imminently.