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Cornell team seeks mercy for Lisa Montgomery

A team of Cornell faculty, graduate students and undergraduates is fighting to save Lisa Montgomery from federal execution next month, supporting her bid for clemency from courtrooms to recording studios to a social media campaign urging followers to #SaveLisa and consider #HerWholeTruth.

They hope a more complete understanding of Montgomery’s severe mental illness and history of relentless sexual and physical abuse – never fully disclosed at trial and dismissed by prosecutors as an “abuse excuse” – will persuade President Donald Trump to grant her a reprieve from becoming the first woman put to death by the U.S. government in nearly 70 years.

Sandra Babcock, clinical professor of law.

“She’s not the kind of person that the death penalty was intended for,” said Sandra Babcock, clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School and the founder and faculty director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. “Even those who support the death penalty can see that Lisa is not ‘the worst of the worst,’ but is, as her sister Diane says, ‘the most broken of the broken.’”

Babcock on Nov. 19 won a federal court ruling that delayed Montgomery’s execution date from Dec. 8, after her two lead attorneys had contracted COVID-19. The decision bought more time to prepare a clemency appeal – now due before Christmas – that will ask for Montgomery’s sentence to be commuted to life in prison.

More than 134,000 people have signed a petition supporting a commutation or at minimum a stay of execution for Montgomery, who has accepted responsibility and expressed remorse for her crime: killing pregnant 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in 2004 to take the baby as her own.

Montgomery committed that crime while in the grip of a psychotic episode, according to the death penalty center, which says her case has been marred by gender discrimination, ineffective lawyering and other errors.

On Dec. 2, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, asked the U.S. government to stay Montgomery’s execution until it could review allegations that Montgomery’s confinement in a Texas prison during a pandemic, and the execution planned despite her mental illness, violate international human rights standards.

The commission was responding to a petition drafted by Cornell Law students Veronica Cinibulk, Allison Franz and Gabriela Markolovic, participants in the International Human Rights Clinic led by Babcock and Zohra Ahmed, a clinical teaching fellow at the death penalty center.

In addition to working on the petition, Cinibulk tapped her talent as an artist to write and record “Lisa’s Song.” Through haunting piano chords and vocals accompanied by images of a young Lisa, the song charts Montgomery’s history of abuse from her perspective and asks if after her execution, “Will you think it’s fair … Will you think you’ve won?”

Cinibulk said she sought to convey Montgomery’s repeated victimization – by parents who should have protected her, systems that should have intervened to rescue her from a dangerous home, lawyers who failed to represent her adequately, and the laws that put her on death row. “A large part of her story is being left out,” Cinibulk said. “Hopefully we’re spreading a fuller story.”

She was gratified to learn that Montgomery’s lawyers played the song for their client over the phone. The song has been played on the news program “Democracy Now!” and re-tweeted by activists Susan Sarandon and Gloria Steinem to their more than 1 million combined followers.

Montgomery’s story and all of the case’s developments this fall have been shared on social media accounts supported or designed by undergraduate and graduate students in “Human-Centered Design and Engaged Media,” a class taught by Jon McKenzie, professor of practice of English and director of StudioLab.

The class partnered with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide early in the semester, building on a First-Year Writing Seminar collaboration last year that supported prisoners facing the death penalty in Tanzania. They planned to help advocate for women on death row and highlight gender discrimination in capital cases, the focus of the center’s Alice Project.

The team of Lara Harvey ’23, Arleigh Parr ’21 and Genna Haddad ’21, along with Sophia Wang and Samantha Chu, who expect to complete master’s degrees in the field of information science this month, started with research that included Zoom conferences with formerly incarcerated women, who they said shared moving accounts of feeling stereotyped, silenced and alone.

The students pitched the idea of “Her Whole Truth” – and an Instagram account with that handle – as a platform for telling more balanced and nuanced stories about women on death row and the cycles of violence they experienced.

“For these women, there’s a cycle of trauma that is really never-ending,” Haddad said.

Babcock said “Her Whole Truth” perfectly captured the center’s goal to fill in missing narratives about women portrayed as violent perpetrators, but who are victims themselves. She expects to feature the tagline across all of the death penalty center’s campaigns.

In mid-October, the students pivoted to focus on Montgomery’s case when the U.S. suddenly set a date for her execution by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. Since then, they have participated in meetings with law students and with Montgomery’s team of lawyers and advocates. They have helped to craft social media messages and promote a different image of Montgomery – not as the scowling convict often seen in media reports, but as a smiling child, one who was born with brain damage caused by her mother’s drinking and subjected to rape, incest and sex trafficking by her parents.

“The students have played a really pivotal role in the campaign to save Lisa’s life,” Babcock said. “We wouldn’t have accomplished half of what we’ve been able to do if we hadn’t had their support.”

The campaign also has helped coordinate diverse supporters of Montgomery’s cause that now include a coalition of U.N. human rights experts; a pair of former federal prosecutors who handled cases involving attacks on pregnant women; 41 current and former state and federal prosecutors; and more than 1,000 organizations and individuals involved in fighting domestic violence and child sex trafficking.

Those interested in joining the campaign for Montgomery can sign the petition asking Trump to extend mercy, Babcock said, and support the work of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

“No other woman has been executed for a similar crime, because most prosecutors have recognized that it is inevitably the product of trauma and mental illness,” Babcock said after the latest execution date was set. “Executing Lisa Montgomery would be yet another injustice inflicted on a woman who has known a lifetime of mistreatment.”

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Rachel Rhodes