UPDATE 3-Hours before execution time, fate of only woman on federal death row moves to U.S. Supreme Court

13 Jan 2021 / 05:56 H.

    (Adds details of legal challenges)

    By Bhargav Acharya, Kanishka Singh and Jonathan Allen

    Jan 12 (Reuters) - Legal challenges were being fought in multiple federal courts on Tuesday on whether to allow Tuesday's scheduled execution of convicted murderer Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row in the United States.

    It is one of three executions the U.S. Department of Justice had scheduled for the final full week of the administration of Republican President Donald Trump's administration. Whether it proceeds will likely fall to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative majority has previously allowed all of Trump's 10 previous executions to proceed.

    Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, and says he will seek to abolish the federal death penalty.

    On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit voted to stay the execution to hold hearings on whether the Justice Department gave insufficient notice of Montgomery's execution date. The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to overturn that stay.

    Also on Monday night, a federal judge in Indiana ordered the execution to be postponed to allow for a hearing on whether she was too mentally ill to be executed. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned the stay on Tuesday afternoon.

    Around the same time, the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its own stay of the execution, siding with her lawyers that the government had scheduled her execution in violation of the original sentencing court's judgment issued in 2007.

    Montgomery, 52, had been scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT) on Tuesday at the Justice Department's execution chamber at its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

    She was convicted in 2007 in Missouri for kidnapping and strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett, then eight months pregnant. Montgomery then cut Stinnett's fetus from the womb. The child survived.

    In the Indiana ruling, U.S. District Judge James Patrick Hanlon granted a stay to allow the court to conduct a so-called competency hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court holds that executing an insane prisoner breaches a constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual" punishments.

    Doctors who have examined her and her lawyers told the court in Indiana that Montgomery has brain impairments and bipolar disorder, among other mental illnesses.

    She has auditory hallucinations, has expressed uncertainty about whether the child of the woman she killed was really her own, and has said that God speaks with her through connect-the-dot puzzles, according to court filings.

    Justice Department lawyers countered with transcripts of Montgomery's prison phone calls they said showed she understood her execution date was drawing near.

    Montgomery's lawyers asked for Trump's clemency last week, saying she committed her crime after a childhood in which she was abused and repeatedly raped by her stepfather and his friends, and so should instead face life in prison.

    Federal executions had been on pause for 17 years and only three men had been executed by the federal government since 1963 until the practice was resumed last year under Trump, whose outspoken support for capital punishment long predates his entry into politics.

    His administration had also set execution dates for two men convicted of murder on Thursday and Friday, but a U.S. judge in Washington ordered their executions be delayed until at least March 16 in order to allow them to recover from COVID-19. The Justice Department has appealed that order. (Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Robert Birsel and Jonathan Oatis)

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