TERRE HAUTE, IND. - The U.S. government's plans to carry out its first execution of a female inmate in nearly seven decades were on hold Tuesday amid a flurry of legal rulings, and two other executions set for later this week were halted because the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.
The three executions were to be the last before President-elect Joe Biden, an opponent of the federal death penalty, is sworn in next week. Now it's unclear how many additional executions there will be under President Donald Trump, who resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year pause. Ten federal inmates have since been put to death.
Lisa Montgomery faced execution Tuesday for killing 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in the northwestern Missouri town of Skidmore in 2004. She used a rope to strangle Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby girl from the womb with a kitchen knife. Montgomery took the child with her and attempted to pass the girl off as her own.
An appeals court granted a stay of execution Tuesday, shortly after another appeals court lifted an Indiana judge's ruling that found she was likely mentally ill and couldn't comprehend she would be put to death. If a higher court puts the execution back on, Montgomery, the only female on federal death row, would receive a lethal injection at a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Separately, a federal judge for the U.S. District of Columbia halted the scheduled executions later this week of Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs in a ruling Tuesday. Johnson, convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs, convicted of ordering the murders of three women in Maryland, both tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
Delays of any of this week's scheduled executions beyond Biden's inauguration next Tuesday would likely mean they will not happen any time soon, or ever, since a Biden administration is expected to oppose carrying out federal death sentences.
Groups opposed to the death penalty said Trump was pushing for executions prior to the November election in a cynical bid to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order leader.
The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Brown Heady on December 18, 1953, for the kidnapping and murder of a 6-year-old boy in Missouri.
The last woman executed by a state was Kelly Gissendaner, 47, on September 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.