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Our Criminal Legal System Needs to Recognize Victims as Victims

By Jessie Frank, IJPC Program Manager

Content Warning: Please be advised that this post contains potentially upsetting details of abuse and sexual assault.

For the past six months, IJPC and death penalty opponents around the country have watched in horror as the federal government has rushed its way from the courts to the execution chamber to execute 10 people. Each time, our petitions and phone calls for caution and compassion fell on deaf ears. Ten times I’ve drafted action emails to mobilize IJPC’s network to call on President Trump, US Attorney General Barr, and members of Congress to stop the senseless federal executions. With each action alert, my doubts as to whether our advocacy had the power to sway those determined to murder in the name of the state grew.

Every single time I begin writing yet another email to stop an upcoming execution, I take care to learn the story of the person whom the state could potentially murder, as well as their victims’ story. And nearly every time I read these stories, my heart breaks as I learn about some aspect of our broken criminal justice system that their case highlights. Perhaps this person was convicted by an all-white jury; maybe the prosecution withheld important evidence; maybe their lawyer didn’t present any mitigating factors during their trial.

Like many others on death row, Lisa Montgomery, who is set to be executed by the federal government on Jan. 12, is there because she committed an absolutely atrocious crime. But also like many others who are on death row, Lisa suffered a lifetime of immeasurable trauma that ultimately left her in a state of psychosis and undoubtedly played a role in the crime she committed.

Lisa was born into a life of poverty, addiction and violence. She was physically assaulted as a small child, and at just four years old, she held her older sister’s hand while her father sexually assaulted her sister. When social services removed her sister from the home, Lisa was left to stay in the abusive situation. Lisa was regularly sexually abused by her step father and trafficked by her mother, who allowed her to be subjected to sexual violence by multiple perpetrators in exchange for money or other services. Lisa told her cousin, a police officer, about the abuse she was enduring, but he did nothing in response. These years of merciless abuse resulted in documented brain trauma and a severe mental illness that makes her unable to connect with reality.

While it is true that Lisa committed a horrific crime, Lisa herself is also a victim. Through no fault of her own, she was abused and assaulted for years, and all our social services– schools, social workers, doctors, and police officers– failed to intervene. Modern laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 protect victims of human trafficking who commit crimes as children. But despite her abuse as a child (which continued into adulthood), this legislation doesn’t help Lisa because she committed the crime as an adult.  Contextualizing Lisa’s history makes what would otherwise be an unfathomable crime fathomable. Yet at trial, she was dehumanized, her abuse mitigated as an excuse, and discriminated against because of her gender.

Lisa is the rule, not the exception when it comes to how our criminal legal system treats people with mental illnesses and survivors of abuse or human trafficking. Too often, because of ineffective legal counsel, corrupt prosecution, or strict sentencing guidelines, our legal system fails to recognize the ways in which society has failed certain people. It also fails to recognize that the line between victim and perpetrator is not always clear-cut. Instead of treating victims as such, we continue to paint them as one dimensional, heartless criminals. We must believe in a world where accountability and compassion can coexist, and where victims can receive the healing they deserve. 

To learn more about Lisa’s case and the efforts to save her life, click here.