Gender and the Insanity Defense: The Case of Lisa Montgomery
Trigger Warning: Please note this piece discusses sexual violence which may be disturbing to some readers.
The United States Federal Government executed Lisa Montgomery on 12 January 2021 after a near 70-year pause in executions of female inmates on federal death row. Montgomery’s execution was the last of a long list of injustices she suffered at the hands of men, the United States government, and so-called “protective” and “justice” systems.
Montgomery’s crime was undeniably gruesome: in 2004 she strangled pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett, sliced the baby from Stinnett’s womb and drove the living infant across state borders. While Stinnett's baby faced a traumatic and unjust entrance into the world, Montgomery faced traumas and injustices in the world every day of her life — including her original sentencing trial. Montgomery’s crime should not have gone unpunished, but Montgomery, shaped by years of sexual torture, should not have been put to death.
In the United States the insanity defense is used to reduce a defendant’s charges or sentence. The defense rests upon the defendant’s mental capacity — whether she, at the time of the crime, had the ability to differentiate right from wrong or understand her actions. The insanity defense has a highly gendered relationship with female defendants. Traditionally, women who use the insanity defense are more likely to be found not guilty due to reasons of insanity than their male counterparts. Dating back hundreds of years, female criminals, and especially those who are mothers, have been deemed insane based solely on their deviance from gender roles which confine women to narrow identities as tender nurturers and caregivers.
The gendered trend of the insanity defense did not work for Montgomery which is arguably attributable to a different gendered pitfall of the insanity defense: that sexual violence and abuse is often discounted as a valid cause of neurological and psychological impairment affecting criminal intent.
In the early 2000s, at the time of Montgomery’s sentencing trial, the long-term effects of sexual violence were under-researched and remained hidden in the shadows of societal taboos. Montgomery’s all-male team of attorneys undervalued the effects that Montgomery’s long history of gender-based violence and abuse might have had on her mental capacity to commit such a crime, and spent minimal energy articulating to the jury her upbringing at all. At the time, the larger conversation around sexual trauma was dominated by famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz’s mocking critique, the "abuse excuse", which discounts sexual trauma as a legitimate defense.
However, it is difficult to disregard the legitimacy of Montgomery's upbringing as it relates to her crime. Indeed, they are inextricable from one another. When Montgomery was a young child, her older sister was raped and subsequently taken into foster care. No social worker ever came back to check on Montgomery who was living in what was undoubtedly a dangerous home environment. This lack of care by so-called protective systems had dire consequences. When Montgomery was 13, her stepfather raped her for the first time. As the rapes grew more consistent, he built a separate shed attached to the family’s trailer for the exclusive purpose of housing the act. Her stepfather invited his friends to take part, and young Montgomery suffered at the hands of these men, often all at once, for hours on end, year after year. As a teenager, Montgomery confided in her cousin, a sheriff, about these incestuous and paedophilic rapes, but he remained silent, holding any possibility of justice for Montgomery behind his sealed lips. Montgomery’s mother also contributed to her abuse; when she could not afford the bills or was unable to pay the services of various utility men, she offered up her daughter’s body instead — an offer seldom refused. When Montgomery was only 18, she was forced to marry her stepbrother who also violently contributed to her life of sexual torture.
At the time of the crime, Montgomery suffered from “bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis, [and] traumatic brain injury”. What should have been emphasised during her sentencing trial but unjustly was not, was that a childhood like Montgomery’s has very real, dramatic effects on the survivor’s cognitive development and psychological state. A clear and vivid argument by her attorneys would have placed her in a legitimate position to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead, during her original sentencing trial, Montgomery’s lawyers failed to connect her past abuse with her current pathology, and therefore missed an opportunity to show that sexual abuse trauma is a legitimate cause for “insanity” under the insanity defense.
Drawing this link would have not only helped Montgomery, but would have advocated for all abuse survivors who commit crimes, and perhaps set a strong precedent for future cases involving the insanity defense. Recent studies working to draw this link demonstrate that any type of sexual assault or abuse, particularly repeated offences during childhood, can cause psychological trauma. This impacts brain development and can cause lifetime psychopathology. These studies further support the fact that childhood sexual abuse has physical effects on the brain, noting that the “etiologic abnormalities of psychological trauma” caused by childhood sexual abuse involve similar neurobiological pathogenies to those involved in abnormalities caused by traumatic brain injury. Had sexual abuse been seen as a legitimate cause of “insanity,” the jury might have been shown Montgomery’s MRI and PET scans which illustrated brain damage and dysfunction.
If Montgomery’s original attorneys had presented her full story under the insanity defense, it would have helped humanise her and perhaps incriminate the system whose failures created her. Montgomery’s most recent lawyers — a team of all women — worked tirelessly to illustrate the failures and injustices Montgomery faced all her life, including in her sentencing trial. Her execution was another system failure rooted in gender inequity. To better advocate for and support survivors of sexual abuse, the justice system must not only recognise the validity of abuse-related trauma in the insanity defense but also the interrelatedness between the justice and mental health systems, sexual abuse, and the pervasive gendered inequalities that underpin them all.
If your or anyone you know is a victim of sexual assault, please contact the Rape Crisis Hotline at 08088010302 or the Fife Rape and Sexual Assault Centre at 01592642336.