Growing up I was always told that "bleeding heart liberals" felt sorrier for the individuals who committed violent crimes than they did the actual victims and their families.
I’ve had similar charges levied at me in recent years as I have become an advocate for ending the death penalty, often talking about the backgrounds of those who end up on death row.
It’s a straw man argument, though, and one that quickly reveals the surface-level understanding of the nature of violence by those who lob it.
There’s a reason many justice reform advocates talk about the trauma of those who have committed harm.
Trauma has powerful, lasting effects. Trauma builds up and worsens when it goes unaddressed. And many of
those who cause violence have long histories of unaddressed trauma resulting from violence they’ve experienced.
As society evolves and science progresses, experts have come to recognize violence as a public health issue and one that is largely cyclical in nature.
When a person is a victim of violence, the ensuing trauma has the potential to rewire the brain and distort its processes.
Ultimately trauma can lead to memory loss, hypervigilance, response process interruptions, and an inability to regulate one’s emotions.
Unfortunately, our modern justice system spends hundreds of millions on responses to violence that not only fail to prevent it, but actually tend to compound the root causes and make our communities less safe. A smarter society would devote resources towards intervening and rehabilitating those who’ve been harmed before the cycle of violence repeats.
Instead, we waste millions on security theater — like the death penalty — and carry out antiquated, punitive punishments against people whose cognitive functions have been impaired by trauma. There’s a lot of people who pound their chest to the beat of "law and order" and walk away thinking they’ve taken a tough stand against violence, when in reality they just consistently make society less safe and less equipped to intervene before it’s too late the next time.
The story of Lisa Montgomery is an excellent case study of this pattern.
She is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 12, 2021. She will be the first woman executed by the U.S. in nearly 70 years. The Trump administration denied her request for a reprieve.
Already in 2020, the Trump administration has carried out more executions than all other presidents combined in the past 57 years.
Montgomery’s background is so horrific it is difficult to read. I’m giving a warning before you read any further. I read case files all day every day, but this one really turned my stomach.
Lisa was born to an alcoholic mother, who would strip Lisa and her half-sister, Diane, naked and send them outside for punishment, beat them with random objects, and withhold basic needs. Their mother brought many men into their home, and both girls were frequently molested from the tender ages of 8 and 4. Finally, the state acted, but removed only Diane from the home. Diane credits being sent to foster care for saving her life. No one intervened on behalf of Lisa.
Her mother remarried a man named Jack Kleiner, who moved them to a trailer in an isolated area of Oklahoma.
He was erratic and abusive as well. He would make Lisa strip before he spanked her. When she was an early teen, he built a shed on the side of the trailer to rape her in. He also let his friends rape her and traded her for goods and services. At one point, Lisa confided in a male cousin, who was also a deputy sheriff, that she was being raped and beaten, and sold, multiple times a day. He also failed to intervene.
When she was 15, Lisa’s mother filed for divorce. She admitted in the court proceedings that she had caught her husband raping her daughter. The court admonished her for not reporting it but did nothing further. Kleiner was never charged. Lisa’s trauma again went untreated.
Teachers and other community members noticed that Lisa was likely a victim of abuse. She was dirty at school, if she made it there at all. She had few clothes and wasn’t able to engage with her peers in a normal way. But still, no one did anything to help.
At 18, Lisa married her stepbrother to escape the ongoing abuse and squalor of her family home. She gave birth to four children in under five years before being sterilized. Her mental health began to rapidly decline. She was unable to hold a job, had repeated car wrecks, engaged in sex work, and fell into drugs and alcohol.
At least five times, she told people she was pregnant when she was not. Her children often described her behavior as odd or trance-like.
Her eventual crime is horrific. In 2004, she went to purchase a puppy from a pregnant woman. But instead of returning with the dog, she came back with a newborn baby — one that she had gotten by murdering the seller.
She attempted to pass the child off as her own until she was caught. For this, Lisa was sentenced to death.
It’s an action that no one would or could defend. Yet, we should try to understand it in the hopes that future, similar actions can be prevented. It isn’t hard to see how the violence, torture, and abuse of Lisa’s formative years played a part in the crime she ultimately committed. But instead of devoting resources to rescuing children in Lisa’s position and rehabilitating them, we have spent millions of dollars to send her to death row and kill her.
Lisa is not lucid most days.
Her mental health continues to deteriorate, and her lawyers say she does not comprehend what will happen to her.
But we must try to make sense of what she’s experienced.
To do so is to know exactly what we are doing, and it ought to make us angry.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.
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