Lawyers for only woman on federal death row ask to delay execution after contracting Covid-19

Two lawyers representing Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, have asked for a delay in execution after they contracted  Covid-19.

Montgomery was convicted of strangling an eight-month pregnant woman from Missouri in 2007 and cutting her unborn child, who survived, out of her womb to pass as her own.

Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Priosn on 16 October to schedule Montgomery’s execution amid the coronavirus pandemic, making her the first woman in nearly 70 years to face the federal death penalty. Her execution date was selected for 8 December.

Her lawyers, Amy Harwell and Kelley Henry, said in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that they’ve had to travel twice from Tennessee to Texas to visit with their client, who is held in FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Each round trip involved two plane flights, transit through two airports, hotel stays, and interaction with dozens of people including airline attendants, car rental employees, passengers, and prison guards,” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit went on to accuse Mr Barr of “recklessly” continuing with the execution despite the pandemic surging across the United States.

“They are sick because Defendant Barr recklessly scheduled Mrs. Montgomery’s execution in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. But for Barr’s action, counsel would not have been stricken with the disease that is ravaging the country,” the court document alleges. It was filed at the US District Court in Washington for Montgomery by Cornell Law School’s International Human Rights Policy Advocacy Clinic.

Prior to Mr Barr’s decision, the lawyers were working remote for their client, which was the policy of the federal public defender’s office. But they were forced to resume travel after Mr Barr made his decision “with no notice to Mrs. Montgomery’s lawyers.”

The Independent contacted the Justice Department for a comment.

Both lawyers are now bedridden from the novel virus and unable to travel to see their client, according to court documents.

“They both have debilitating fatigue that prevents them from working on Mrs. Montgomery’s clemency application,” the court document said. “They have a range of other symptoms as well, including headaches, chills, sweats, gastrointestinal distress, inability to focus, and impaired thinking and judgment.”

According to the document, Mr Barr’s decision to continue with the execution during the pandemic interfered with Montgomery’s right to counsel.

The court documents cited Montgomery’s “profound mental illness” as the reason why she needs “assistance and advice of counsel”.

“And as a person with a history of extreme trauma induced by overwhelming sexual violence, she requires careful and compassionate legal representation by the lawyers who have spent many years earning her trust,” the document added.

Montgomery reportedly experienced sexual and physical abuse when she was younger. As a child, she was trafficked, which impacted her mental health. Her lawyers have argued Montgomery’s history should exclude her from receiving the death penalty.

They have also asked for a delayed execution until Montgomery could be provided with proper counsel to continue with her case.

A hearing was scheduled for Monday for the two sides to share their arguments.