As we begin to gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving season, every faith tradition asks us to remember people who are alone, imprisoned, orphaned and oppressed. Although I have worked for the past few decades on behalf of survivors of trafficking and injustices within the criminal justice system, I still am caught off guard by the lack of understanding of how early severe childhood trauma affects young women physically and mentally and how that translates into gross injustice. This year, in addition to walking alongside thousands of survivors, I am thinking of someone I have never met and have no connection to named Lisa Montgomery.
Lisa is a survivor of child abuse, domestic violence, incest, multiple rapes and child sex trafficking. Lisa’s mother started sexually trafficking her when she was a small child, including allowing her to be gang raped by adult men on multiple occasions telling Lisa she had to “earn her keep.” At 17, she was married to her stepbrother, who videotaped his torture of her. Her years of violent abuse at the hands of family members resulted in documented brain damage and severe mental illness that severed her connection with reality. Without antipsychotic medication, Lisa would lose the ability to understand what was happening to her and have difficulty determining what was real. Dr. Katherine Porterfield, a renowned expert on torture and trauma, has testified that the impact of Lisa’s sexual abuse was “massive,” and that her disorder was “one of the most severe cases of dissociation I’ve ever seen.”
Lisa was arrested on December 17, 2004 and sentenced to death on October 22, 2007 for the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Lisa’s crime reflects her serious mental illness and abuse. She killed Ms. Stinnett, who was 8 months pregnant, to claim the baby as her own. It was a violent and sick crime committed by a victim of severe trauma and mental illness.
While I believe Lisa should remain imprisoned and under psychiatric care for the remainder of her life to ensure her community’s safety, I do not believe that she should be executed on December 8th. Lisa’s tortured and traumatic upbringing, the injustices in her representation, and her mental health before and during the horrific crime make commuting her sentence the just and right thing to do. As our country continues to grapple with our culpability in the systems that have allowed child sexual trauma and Lisa’s abuse to continue unchecked for decades, we should offer grace to those we’ve failed. To learn more about Lisa’s story and ways you can advocate on her behalf, go to www.savelisa.org.
This Thanksgiving let us pledge to continue our work on behalf of women and children like Lisa Montgomery. Let us fight to keep them safe, remove them from harm, provide spaces to harbor them from violence, work to make our laws more just, and provide the employment and mental health services they need to survive.
Peace and love.
— Becca Stevens