Melinda Henneberger: How could bloodthirsty execution of Kansas woman ever amount to justice?

By Melinda Henneberger, The Kansas City Star on

Published in Op Eds

The selectively pro-life Trump administration has brought back the federal death penalty with what I think we can safely call a vengeance during this tough-on-crime campaign season. Did Attorney General William Barr, only recently honored at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast for his "Christlike behavior," even flinch when ordering that a Kansas woman will be murdered in our name on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception?

Most of those who suffer great cruelty as children do not go on to brutalize others as adults. But Lisa Montgomery, the woman we're killing by lethal injection on Dec. 8, isn't one of those victims who never made the news.

In 2004, she strangled a pregnant 23-year-old, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, in Stinnett's home in Skidmore, Missouri. The scene was so grisly that when Stinnett's mother found her body, she told police that it looked like her stomach had exploded; Montgomery had cut Stinnett open with a kitchen knife and had stolen the baby girl she then tried to pass off as her own.

At her 2007 trial, a psychiatrist testified that Montgomery had for years "suffered from significant physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather." Even when her mother finally caught him raping her, the doctor said, it was her daughter she blamed, and saw as "a seducer or home-wrecker." Yet Montgomery "still strived for approval from her mother," who was herself so violent that she killed the family dog in front of her children to punish them. At 18, Montgomery married her stepbrother at her mother's urging. Her life did not get better.

The prosecution wrote all of this off as "the abuse excuse" of a "wicked" criminal who was only faking mental illness. "As a society, we can't let people use the fact that they had bad parents or didn't have a good childhood as an excuse to murder people," said Matt Whitworth, the lead prosecutor in the case.

If even one juror had held out against her execution, she would have spent the rest of her life in prison. But no, it was unanimous, and jurors told reporters that they, too, saw her as the prosecution did, as a Star news story put it, as a "scheming, dishonest manipulator who used false pregnancies to gain advantage in her interpersonal relations."

Now, all these years later, we're going to do to Lisa Montgomery what she did to Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Which I'm sure is going to deter other victims of severe child abuse from being damaged in ways that we'll then pretend are just an excuse for their crimes. And who is it who's faking, again?

Skidmore, Missouri, population 284, where Montgomery knocked on Stinnett's door pretending to want to buy a puppy, is really only known for two things: murder and mob justice.

Four years before Stinnett's killing, in 2000, her 25-year-old cousin, Wendy Gillenwater, had been stomped to death by the "boyfriend" who'd left her with 14 fractured ribs, a punctured lung and lacerated liver. The next year, in 2001, another cousin, 20-year-old Branson Perry, disappeared and was never found.

There have been precocious murderers and elderly ones in surrounding Nodaway County: Benny Kemper was just 15 when he sneaked into his classmate's basement, waited until the Merrigan family was asleep and killed them one by one in their beds in 1972. Lloyd Jeffress was 71 when he shot up Conception Abbey in 2002, killing two monks and wounding two others before ending his own life. A local farmer, William Taylor, made national news after he ran over his wife Debra with a combine in 1994.


But it's the can-do vigilantism that sets this far northwest corner of Missouri apart.

In 1931, a crowd of thousands watched the Maryville lynching of Raymond Gunn, a Black man the mob tied to a pole on the roof of a one-room schoolhouse and burned alive. That's where Gunn was suspected of having murdered a 20-year-old teacher, but there was no trial, and the local sheriff never called in the National Guard troops who were in town to protect Gunn. He didn't want any of them to get hurt, he said later. The Gunn family's home was burned, too, and many Black residents fled that day. Burned fragments of what had been the schoolhouse were pocketed as souvenirs.

Half a century later, in 1981, Skidmore pulled together again, for the broad-daylight murder of "town bully" Ken Rex McElroy. Dozens of people saw him shot in his truck on Main Street, with at least two guns, and yet no one was ever arrested.

Isn't it in that same bloodthirsty spirit that we'll call the death of Lisa Montgomery justice? Unlike Gunn or McElroy, she was at least convicted in court. And unlike Gunn, her guilt is not in doubt. But in taking the life of a woman who never had much of a chance of one, neither is ours.



Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Kansas City Star's editorial board.

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

(c)2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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