Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Lisa Montgomery lived a tortured life, from the day she was born in a small Washington town till the day she became the first woman in 67 years to be executed by the U.S. government.
In the end, it was in prison—where she spent years on death row after committing a horrific crime—that she began to recover from a lifetime of nightmarish abuse.
‘Don’t Spank Me’
Lisa was born with organic brain damage because her mother, Judy Shaughnessy, drank alcohol throughout her pregnancy. She was frequently beaten as a child, her family revealed in sworn court testimony, and left with duct tape over her mouth for hours; she learned not to cry during this time because it would suffocate her. Judy told Lisa’s lawyers that her daughter’s first words as a toddler were, “Don’t spank me.”
As Lisa entered adolescence, her stepfather Jack Kleiner began raping her, according to court documents. Judy asked repairmen working in their house to take payment in sexual encounters with Lisa, a minor. At Lisa’s trial and subsequent appeals, testimony revealed that Jack’s friends gang-raped her, sometimes beating her for “not doing it right” and urinating on her afterwards. She confided in a cousin who was a police officer, but he took no action, he later testified.
And according to The New York Times, Lisa’s trial didn’t come close to chronicling the full extent of her abuse—or of all the people who turned a blind eye, letting it continue. That only emerged in post-conviction interviews that new counsel conducted with nearly 450 family members, neighbors, lawyers, social workers and teachers.
Both Shaughnessy and Kleiner have since died. Neither was ever charged or prosecuted. Before his death, Kleiner taped a statement denying the abuse.
‘The Only Thing I am Good For’
When Lisa turned 18, she married her stepbrother, Carl Boman, who continued this cycle of extreme abuse, court documents indicate. They had four children in four years, following which Judy and Carl forced Lisa to undergo sterilization. As of October 2020, Carl is in jail, facing felony charges of child sexual abuse.
The sterilization caused Lisa immense emotional trauma, and she claimed she was pregnant several times in the years afterwards, believing what doctors later called a “delusional version of herself.” She said having children was “the only thing I’m good for.”
It was this role as a mother that was under threat for Lisa in the winter of 2004. She had divorced Carl and married Kevin Montgomery, and her ex-husband was filing to take custody of their two minor children. He threatened to expose her fake pregnancy to her new husband, who did not know about her sterilization.
On December 16, 2004, Lisa—who for months claimed to be pregnant—drove from her Kansas home to Missouri to meet Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old dog breeder who was eight months pregnant and thought Lisa was coming to buy a puppy. Once inside Bobbie’s house, Lisa strangled her, conducted a crude Caesarean section using a kitchen knife and kidnapped the infant.
Sheriffs who responded to the gruesome murder scene after Bobbie Jo’s mother found her daughter’s body say they are still traumatized.
Lisa told her family she had given birth to the baby and spent a day taking care of it as her own before police showed up at her door and arrested her.
‘More Protected Than Ever’
The state of Missouri convicted Lisa of kidnapping and killing Bobbie Jo on October 26, 2007. She received the death penalty in April 2008.
In prison, doing highly repetitive jobs like laundry, cleaning floors and emptying trash cans helped her, her doctors found. She received antipsychotic medication to treat her bipolar disorder, depression and personality disorder, according to her prison health records, which were submitted by Lisa’s defense attorneys during her various appeals. Lisa became deeply religious and reconnected with a spiritual advisor who had driven her to church when she was a child.
For the first time in her life, she found a small, supportive and stable network of female friends and reported feeling safe from the sexual violence she endured most of her life.
In prison, she said she felt “more protected than she ever felt on the outside.”
One of the women Lisa befriended behind bars was Toby Dorr, whose own crime—of helping a male inmate escape while doing volunteer prison work and then running off with him—also drew widespread national media attention. She remembers Lisa as a generous and kind person, always helping others. “I think that the Lisa that I knew was the Lisa that was always there, and the Lisa that the whole world could have known,” Toby tells A&E Real Crime. “If only she would have been able to get the help she needed.”
Acts of Love
Lisa also rebuilt her relationship with her family while in prison and was reunited with her long-lost elder sister Diane Mattingly.
“First it was difficult for me to start a relationship with Lisa,” Diane says in a video testimonial asking for clemency for her sister. “Then we started writing. She is so good about allowing you to have flaws. And she is still accepting of you.”
Diane visited Lisa in prison, where they spent hours talking through a glass window that separated them. Sometimes, they pressed their hands to the glass together.
In the 16 years since Lisa was incarcerated, her children grew up, got married and had their own kids. For each of her grandchildren, Lisa made presents—blankets, toys and clothes—by hand.
A dollhouse she made for Kayla’s children had two floors and an attic, with blue walls and a brown roof, all made with wool. Each room inside had elaborately crafted details. “I think she spent a year on that dollhouse,” Kayla says in the clemency video. “[It’s] very much an act of love.”
Lisa’s son C.J. recalls how his mother welcomed his adopted children. “Even before we adopted our girls, she made them Christmas stockings,” he says in the video testimonial. “She made them feel part of the family before they were officially part of the family.”
When Lisa would contemplate suicide, she would go to the wall in her cell where she had placed pictures of her grandchildren, she told one of her doctors. Most times, it would help her.
A Rare Execution
When her execution date was set, Lisa—the only woman on federal death row—did not want her family there as witnesses. “She didn’t want us to live with that,” says her niece Jessica Farley.
Officials put her on suicide watch, where she was isolated from her friends in prison. In a letter she wrote to Toby, she told her she was very concerned about these other women.
“She said they were taking the news of her execution date really hard and Lisa wanted to be able to be there for them, but she wasn’t able to talk to any of them,” says Toby. “What bothered her the most was that she couldn’t be there to comfort her friends.”
As calls for granting Lisa clemency grew louder, it upset the family and friends of Bobbie Jo, who wanted the punishment carried out. “I’m hoping for closure, peace,” Jena Baumli, a childhood friend of Bobbie’s, told the BBC.
Richard Chaney, another friend of Bobbi Jo’s, wasn’t swayed by the history of Lisa’s past abuse, noting that many people experience trauma without committing horrific crimes. He told The New York Times, “You don’t see them out killing pregnant women and cutting babies out.”
On January 13, 2021, Lisa, 52, was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Corrections Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
‘She Wasn’t a Monster’
Now, Kayla is tasked with sorting through her mother’s belongings. Lisa left her special instructions on what to do with these possessions. A twin-sized handmade blanket is for Kayla’s 10-year-old daughter that would “last her as she grows.” Another one is for C.J. and his wife, in case they have another child.
“My mom changed in so many ways since her mental illnesses were treated,” Kayla says, adding she now understood who her mother truly was.
“She wasn’t the monster the media made her out to be, that I once thought she was,” says Kayla. “She was a different person once she had the help she had always needed.”