The execution order of one Lisa Montgomery in Indiana in January made headlines around the world for being the first ever female convict executed by the US government since 1953. In 2004, Montgomery was awarded the death penalty for strangulating Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was 23 back then and pregnant, and she removed her unborn child from her womb, claiming the child as hers. Montgomery was a damaged, delusional woman, suffering from schizophrenia, personality disorder, depression, traumatic brain injury and PTSD. She experienced psychosis and believed God spoke to her through connect-the-dot puzzles. When the crime was committed, she was suffering from a rare psychiatric issue called pseudocyesis, which led her to falsely believe she was pregnant and experienced similar hormonal and body changes.
Over several decades, researchers have examined connections between adult mental illness and childhood trauma. Experts examine how childhood trauma affects criminal behaviour. In maternal mental health forensics, the process of determining evidence for mothers prosecuted for criminal behaviour includes cases of maternal infanticide. The lingering stigma of mental illness ensures that adverse childhood experiences and relationship to criminal behaviour, remains ignored. Thus, fair legal decisions and compassion remain inconsistent. While the legal system has matured, there is a long way to go.
Monsters or Victims?
Twenty years ago, Andrea Yates killed her five children in Houston, Texas, and faced a death penalty sentence. Yates thought she saved her children from damnation by forcing them to drown in their bathtub. In 2002, she was sentenced to life in prison while an appellate court ordered a re-trial. At that 2006 trial, Yates’s attorney educated the jury about her psychotic problems. Yates was found to be not guilty due to an insanity plea. Public opinion shifted from contempt to compassion about the maternal mental illness issue, and the role it played in the crime. Similar compassion and understanding for Lisa Montgomery, was missing. Society judges such women as sadistic and maniacal, demanding severe punishment. Without understanding possible mental health basis, these mothers tend to be treated like monsters rather than actual victims of their mental disturbances, who lack the capacity to understand their actions.
A Traumatizing Childhood
As a child, her mother subjected Lisa to repeated intimate torture and humiliation, by stripping Lisa naked, pushing her outside the front door as punishment, putting Lisa in cold showers and whipping her with cords, hangers and belts. Her step-father had a secret room behind his trailer, to repeatedly rape her with others. Such horrible childhood traumas, including not so extreme ones, have altered brain biology and led to mental illnesses in adulthood. Research shows that suffering trauma at a young age is common when it comes to maternal filicide.
When dealing with maternal mental illness, maltreatment at childhood by guardians or parents can have harmful effects. The urgent need is to shift the focus on childhood traumas impacting adult mental health. Studying laws and judicial decisions reflect evolving appreciation of how adverse childhood experiences contribute to criminal behaviour, mental illness, and insanity defences, is crucial. Trauma is not “abuse-excuse,” as federal prosecutors termed Montgomery’s life story. Abuse produces terrible negative outcomes which can include criminal behaviour. If Montgomery had undergone a trial in a legal system with deeper understanding of mental illness, her life could be spared, and appropriate treatment provided. The murder of Bobbi Jo Stinnett was tragic and reprehensible. A second injustice occurred when Montgomery, a victim of mental illness, was executed.