A federal judge said the Justice Department unlawfully rescheduled the execution of the only woman on federal death row, potentially setting up the Trump administration to schedule the execution after president-elect Joe Biden takes office. U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss also vacated an order from the director of the Bureau of Prisons that had set Lisa Montgomery's execution date for Jan. 12.
Montgomery had previously been scheduled to be put to death at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, this month. But Moss delayed the execution after her attorneys contracted coronavirus visiting their client and asked him to extend the amount of time to file a clemency petition.
Moss prohibited the Bureau of Prisons from carrying out Lisa Montgomery's execution before the end of the year and officials rescheduled her execution date for Jan. 12. But Moss ruled on Wednesday that the agency was also prohibited from rescheduling the date while a stay was in place.
"The Court, accordingly, concludes that the Director's order setting a new execution date while the Court's stay was in effect was 'not in accordance with law,'" Moss wrote.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under the order, the Bureau of Prisons cannot reschedule Montgomery's execution until at least Jan. 1. Generally, under Justice Department guidelines, a death-row inmate must be notified at least 20 days before the execution. Because of the judge's order, if the Justice Department chooses to reschedule the date in January, it could mean that the execution would be scheduled after Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.
A spokesperson for Biden has told The Associated Press the president-elect "opposes the death penalty now and in the future" and would work as president to end its use in office. But Biden's representatives have not said whether executions would be paused immediately once Biden takes office.
Montgomery was convicted of killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore in December 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from the womb, authorities said.
Prosecutors said Montgomery removed the baby from Stinnett's body, took the child with her, and attempted to pass the girl off as her own. Montgomery's legal team has argued that their client suffers from serious mental illnesses.
"Given the severity of Mrs. Montgomery's mental illness, the sexual and physical torture she endured throughout her life, and the connection between her trauma and the facts of her crime, we appeal to President Trump to grant her mercy, and commute her sentence to life imprisonment," one of Montgomery's lawyers, Sandra Babcock, said in a statement.
Two other federal inmates are scheduled to be executed in January but have tested positive for coronavirus and their attorneys are also seeking delays to their executions.
The last woman to be executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Heady was sentenced to death for a high-profile kidnapping and murder, and executed by gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary on December 18, 1953.
Audrey McNamara contributed to this report.