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U.S. federal judge halts executions of 2 inmates diagnosed with COVID-19

A federal judge on Tuesday halted this week's executions of two inmates who were diagnosed with COVID-19, the last two federal executions scheduled under U.S. President Donald Trump. A judge also ruled Tuesday that the execution of the first female inmate in 67 years would be delayed.

WARNING: Story contains details readers may find disturbing

Convicted murderer Lisa Montgomery is pictured at the Federal Medical Center Fort Worth in Texas in an undated photograph. A judge has granted a stay of execution for Montgomery, who was scheduled to be executed Tuesday. (Attorneys for Lisa Montgomery/Handout/Reuters)

A U.S. federal judge on Tuesday halted this week's executions of two inmates who were diagnosed with COVID-19, the last two federal executions scheduled under President Donald Trump.

The ruling applies to Corey Johnson, who was scheduled to be executed on Thursday, and Dustin Higgs, who was scheduled to die on Friday. If the delay isn't overturned by a higher court, it would push back the executions to at least March and perhaps permanently, because president-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of the federal death penalty, will be sworn in next week.

The ruling doesn't apply to the U.S. government's planned execution on Tuesday of Lisa Montgomery, who would be the first female federal inmate executed in nearly seven decades. However, Montgomery's execution also was delayed — at least temporarily — with a federal judge's ruling that she should receive a competency examination before being put to death.

The order, handed down less than 24 hours before Montgomery was set to be executed Tuesday at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., temporarily blocks the federal Bureau of Prisons from moving forward with her execution. The Justice Department didn't immediately comment.

Montgomery's lawyers have said their client suffers from hallucinations — including hearing her abusive mother's voice — as well as a disoriented sense of reality and gaps in her consciousness. They have long argued that she is not mentally fit to be executed because she suffers from serious mental illness and faced years of emotional and sexual trauma as a child.

U.S. District Judge James Patrick Hanlon found that the court must first hold a hearing to determine whether Montgomery meets the legal criteria for competency before the execution can move forward, finding she "would be irreparably injured if the government executes her when she is not competent to be executed."

Kelley Henry, one of Montgomery's attorneys, praised the ruling and said her client is "mentally deteriorating."

"Mrs. Montgomery has brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers," Henry said.

Separately, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued another stay in Montgomery's case for an appeal related to the Justice Department's execution protocols and said briefs must be fully filed in that case by Jan. 29, raising the prospect her execution could be delayed until after president-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Biden has said he opposes the death penalty and a spokesperson told the AP he would work to end its use in office, but Biden's team has not said whether he would halt executions after his inauguration on Jan. 20.

Apprehended with victim's baby 

In 2004, Montgomery drove about 270 kilometres from her Melvern, Kan., farmhouse to the northwest Missouri town of Skidmore under the guise of adopting a rat terrier puppy from Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old dog breeder. She strangled Stinnett with a rope before performing a crude caesarean section and fleeing with the baby.

She was arrested the next day after showing off the premature infant, Victoria Jo, who is now 16 years old and hasn't spoken publicly about the tragedy.

Randy Strong, who was part of the northwest Missouri major case squad at the time, recalled apprehending Montgomery at her home. "As we walked across the threshold our Amber Alert was scrolling across the TV at that very moment," Strong said.

He looked to his right and saw Montgomery holding the newborn and was awash in relief when she handed her over to law enforcement. The preceding hours had been a blur in which he photographed Stinnett's body and spent a sleepless night looking for clues — unsure of whether the baby was dead or alive and no idea what she looked like.

Crime scene tape barricades the home of murder victim Bobbie Jo Stinnett and her husband, Zeb, in Skidmore, Mo., on Dec. 21, 2004. (Dave Kaup DK/Reuters)

But then tips began arriving about Montgomery, who had a history of faking pregnancies and suddenly had a baby. Strong, now the sheriff of Nodaway County, where the killing happened, hopped in an unmarked car with another officer. He learned while en route that the email address that was used to set up the deadly meeting with Stinnett had been sent from a dial-up connection at Montgomery's home.

"I absolutely knew I was walking into the killer's home," recalled Strong, saying rat terriers ran around his feet as he approached her house. Like Stinnett, Montgomery also raised rat terriers.

Bobbie Jo Stinnett's mother, Becky Harper, sobbed as she told a Missouri dispatcher about stumbling across her daughter in a pool of blood, her womb slashed open and the child she had been carrying missing.

"It's like she exploded or something," Harper told the dispatcher on Dec. 16, 2004, during the desperate yet futile attempt to get help for her daughter.

Defence had argued mental illness

Prosecutors said her motive was that Montgomery's ex-husband knew she had undergone a tubal ligation that made her sterile and planned to reveal she was lying about being pregnant in an effort to get custody of two of their four children. Needing a baby before a fast-approaching court date, Montgomery turned her focus on Stinnett, whom she had met at dog shows.

Montgomery's lawyers, though, have argued that sexual abuse during Montgomery's childhood led to mental illness.

Her stepfather denied the sexual abuse in videotaped testimony and said he didn't have a good memory when confronted with a transcript of a divorce proceeding in which he admitted some physical abuse. Her mother testified that she never filed a police complaint because he had threatened her and her children.

Demonstrators protest federal executions of death row inmates in front of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, on Dec. 10. Federal authorities had scheduled five executions starting on Dec. 10 through Jan. 15. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

But the jurors who heard the case, some crying through the gruesome testimony, disregarded the defence in convicting her of kidnapping resulting in death.

Prosecutors argued that Stinnett regained consciousness and tried to defend herself as Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from her womb. Later that day, Montgomery called her husband to pick her up in the parking lot of a Long John Silver's in Topeka, Kan., telling him she had delivered the baby earlier in the day at a nearby birthing centre.

She eventually confessed, and the rope and bloody knife used to kill Stinnett were found in her car. A search of her computer showed she used it to research caesareans and order a birthing kit.

Federal executions resumed last year

Montgomery originally was scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 8. But the execution was temporarily blocked after her attorneys contracted the coronavirus visiting her in prison.

The U.S. has executed 10 people at Terre Haute since the resumption of federal executions after a 17-year pause started on July 14. Anti-death penalty groups said President Donald Trump was pushing for executions prior to the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.

U.S. officials have portrayed the executions as bringing long-delayed justice for victims and their families.

The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady on Dec. 18, 1953, for the kidnapping and murder of a six-year-old boy in Missouri.

The last woman executed by a state was Kelly Gissendaner, 47, on Sept. 30, 2015, in Georgia. She was convicted of murder in the 1997 slaying of her husband after she conspired with her lover, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death.

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