“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Content Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of abuse and sexual violence.
Lisa Montgomery is the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953.
52-year-old Montgomery was killed by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute today. Her time of death was 1:31 AM.
Montgomery's crime was heinous by nature: In 2004, Montgomery killed 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett and removed Stinnett's unborn child from her womb. The infant, Victoria Jo, survived and is 16 today.
No one is arguing that Montgomery doesn't deserve a life in prison for her crimes (though whether she deserves a life in a mental asylum is another discussion). But her execution — part of a string of executions that the Trump Administration is ramming in before its dissolution — cannot be extricated from politics, nor can it be extricated from Montgomery's traumatic life story.
Her death was the result of a long, hard-won battle between those who believed she deserved to die and those who believed that a lifetime of sex trafficking, torture, and mental illness merited a life in prison, not government-sanctioned death.
An Early Life
Lisa Montgomery's childhood was a nightmare in every sense. Her mother, Judy, drank during her pregnancy, and Lisa was born with brain damage. Judy would beat and psychologically torment Lisa and her sisters throughout their early years, even beating the family dog to death in front of them.
Starting at the age of 11, Lisa was raped multiple times each week by her stepfather, Jack Kleiner, who also beat her and her mother. The rapes became so frequent that Kleiner even built a makeshift shed on the side of the family's trailer where he could attack Lisa and no one could hear her screams. MRI brain scans show that Lisa suffered brain damage from his brutal retaliations to her attempts to resist.
Over the years, her stepfather began inviting friends over to violently gang rape Lisa for hours on end. Lisa's mother also participated, selling Lisa's body to plumbers and electricians in exchange for utility work and showing no empathy for what was happening to her daughter.
Teachers and doctors often suspected something was happening, but no one ever stepped up to help Lisa.
These were the formative experiences that shaped Lisa Montgomery, experiences that psychologists would later conclude amounted to torture. "This is a story about a woman who is profoundly mentally ill as a result of a lifetime of torture and sexual violence," said Sandra Babcock, a consultant to Montgomery's legal team. "Lisa is not the worst of the worst – she is the most broken of the broken."
Lisa's trials didn't end in childhood. She married her stepbrother at 18, and he continued the cycle, raping and abusing her again and again. Lisa gave birth to four children in four years before being pressured by her husband and mother into a sterilization procedure.
After that, her mental health declined and she began struggling to keep a job. She also started participating in sex work and frequently fell into trances around her children. Following the sterilization, she also often told people she was pregnant.
An Awful Crime
The crime Lisa Montgomery committed, as a journal article from the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide writes, "reflects the depth of her mental illness and despair."
Two days before the crime, Montgomery's abusive ex-husband filed for custody of two of their children. At the time, Lisa told her new husband she was pregnant, but the abusive former husband knew this was impossible because of the sterilization and threatened to expose Lisa in court.
Desperate, and likely in the midst of a psychotic break, Lisa went to the home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a woman she had bonded with online over their shared love of dogs. She strangled Stinnett, then removed the infant from Stinnett's abdomen. The crime shattered the Skidmore, Missouri town where it occurred, and some family members called for death as retribution.
The Fight to Stop Lisa's Execution
Lisa's crime was horrific and unforgettable. Lisa herself felt "deep remorse" for the crime "before she lost all touch with reality in the days before her execution," according to her attorney.
But still, simply based on tradition, most murders do not result in the death penalty. Instead, prosecutors must actively make the decision to push for the death penalty. Under the Bush Justice Department, since-disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales chose to break with tradition and pursue the death penalty for Lisa.
Lisa's initial defense team was led by an all-male team of lawyers that included Dave Owen, who had never defended anyone against the death penalty, let alone a woman who had a history of sexual violence and trauma. Experts recommended a more experienced lawyer be put on the team, and so experienced capital defense lawyer Judy Clarke was added. Clarke quickly built up a rapport with Lisa.
But Owen apparently could not stand having to take orders from a female lawyer, so removed her from the team. The male chief investigator on Lisa's case said that it was clear that Owen was "not going to take any orders from any damn woman."
Clarke was removed and banned from visiting Lisa in prison. Of course, Lisa's male team of attorneys failed her in the trial, failing to bring up Lisa's history of abuse and trauma. Instead they disparaged Lisa's mothering skills and the state of her home. Lisa was sentenced to death.
Near the end of her life, a new team of defenders stepped up to try to defend Lisa. They investigated her mental health, finding that Lisa suffered from bipolar disorder with psychotic features, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, and cerebellar dysfunction, according Amy Harwell, a public defender who worked on Montgomery's case.
Lisa showed "symptoms of dissociation, including confused thinking, major gaps in memory, and an inability to recognize the reality of certain events," explained Dr. Katherine Poterfield, a Bellevue clinical psychiatrist who interviewed Lisa in prison. She added that Lisa's trauma was "massive," one of the most severe cases of dissociative disorder she had ever seen.
"She would not be able to keep her train of thought, and describe strange ways of thinking to describe her reality," said Porterfield. "She lives in a state of disassociation, going in and out all the time. When I asked about her childhood, she would display an inability to connect to her emotions – with a blank facial expression, blank voice, talking about herself in the third person."
While in prison, Lisa also displayed other signs of debilitating mental dissociation, believing that God could speak with her through crossword puzzles and often expressing doubts about whether what she was seeing around her was real.
Montgomery's parents' family trees both feature psychiatric and neurological issues, including mood disorders, intellectual disability, PTSD and schizophrenia. Porterfield compared the abuse Lisa suffered to "pouring lighter fluid onto a spark."
"I have never seen a case like this. I don't know of any execution in the US or elsewhere that has been carried out on someone who has been subjected to such unrelenting sexual torture and violence," said defender Sandra Babcock.
"Talking to Lisa was like talking to Vietnam and Korean war veterans who had been held in holes and bamboo cages under the most horrible conditions," said social worker Janet Vogelsang.
Lisa's own sister and family also came to her defense, begging that Lisa be kept alive and in prison for the sake of her 14 grandchildren.
"I'm bruised, but I'm not broken," wrote Montgomery's sister Diane in an essay. "My sister, Lisa Montgomery, is broken. On December 8, the federal government plans to execute her for a crime she committed in the grip of severe mental illness after a lifetime of living hell. She does not deserve to die." Diane was adopted out of the house at the age of eight and Lisa was four.
"Retribution is one method of accountability for criminal acts," writes Rachel Louise Snyder in The New York Times. "But Ms. Montgomery's life, however much she has left of it, is already irreparably shattered. For many of us, that might seem punishment enough."
For more on the horrific abuse Lisa Montgomery suffered in her early childhood that contributed to her severe menta… https://t.co/nTJ9b7T3tR— Scott Hechinger (@Scott Hechinger) 1610543173.0
For the Supreme Court, it wasn't.
The Trump Administration's Bloodlust
Up until the last minute, people fought against Lisa's execution. On Monday, an Indiana judge halted the execution until a mental evaluation could be held. On Tuesday, an appeals court panel overruled the stay. Two further courts – in the district of Columbia and the eighth circuit court – issued their own separate stays.
In his ruling on a stay, Judge James Hanlon found that "the record before the court contains ample evidence that Ms Montgomery's current mental state is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government's rationale for her execution." According to the Death Penalty Information Center, defendants who are so mentally ill they do not understand their crimes are not eligible for execution.
But still, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the execution just before midnight on Tuesday night.
The act has been widely condemned. "The craven bloodlust of a failed administration was on full display tonight. Everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame," said Montgomery's lawyer, Kelley Henry, in a statement to the USA TODAY Network. "Our Constitution forbids the execution of a person who is unable to rationally understand her execution," she said. "The current administration knows this. And they killed her anyway."
There is a cruel irony — if it could even be called that — to Lisa's death. Throughout her entire life, Lisa was taken advantage of and tortured by people who were supposed to protect her. She was damaged beyond comprehension by men and offered no mercy.
This tradition would extend to the end of her life, when Donald Trump's administration and the Supreme Court he stacked would vote to kill her.
That a man accused of sexual assault by 25 women has executed a woman who suffered psychologically devastating sexual abuse throughout her whole life feels like an appropriate end to a horrible story. That she died on the day of Trump's impeachment trial is another kind of twisted irony.
A Spree of Executions
Throughout 2020, the Trump Administration has rushed 10 prisoners to death in a murderous spree. Joe Biden has pledged to end the death penalty, so the Trump Administration's executions are a clear attempt to exercise and cling to power before it leaves or is forced to leave office.
In the few months since he lost the 2020 US election, Trump's administration has ordered the executions of Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, and Alfred Bourgeois, three Black men. The last time a sitting duck president presided over an execution was when Grover Cleveland presided over the murder of a Native American of the Choctaw Nation named Richard Smith.
Others who received the death penalty this year under Trump include Christopher Vialva and Brandon Bernard, who committed crimes when they were 18 and 19, respectively, making them the first teenage offenders sent to death by the government in 70 years. In addition, Trump came under fire for killing a Navajo man named Lezmon Mitchell, ignoring the fact that the crime was committed on tribal lands, which do not implement the death penalty.
Today, 22 states have abolished capital punishment and support for the death penalty has plummeted to its lowest in 50 years. Not only is a federal death penalty extraordinarily ethically questionable—federal executions are extravagantly expensive and a drain on government resources.
Yet the savagery of Trump's administration's string of executions is yet another affirmation of his and his administration's fundamental beliefs, another example of how easily invocations of "law and order" disintegrate to violence.
"No-one has ever attempted to carry out so many executions at the federal level," said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "No-one in modern American history has attempted to carry out so many executions in such a short period of time... and no-one has done so in a manner that so closely disregards the rule of law."
Capital punishment has long been a debated topic in the U.S. Do you know both sides?
Capital punishment is a major moral question in the United States. Is the government justified in killing someone, even if they committed a terrible crime? Rick Halperin, the director of the Embrey Human Rights program at Southern Methodist University, discusses this and other ethical questions surrounding capital punishment. Halperin has done extensive research on the death penalty and is a recognized international authority on the subject.
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
From an ethical and human rights standpoint, should the government have the death penalty?
Never. The government clearly has the power to kill people, but that's different than whether they have the right to kill people. The most fundamental human right that anybody in this world has is not the right to life, but the right to life with dignity. And the death penalty, in any country, used against any individual or group of individuals violates that most fundamental right — even if it were to be used on a person or a group of persons who are guilty of heinous and violent offenses. The death penalty is the most fundamental human rights violation of any country in the world, including our own.
From your perspective, would life imprisonment be a better alternative to capital punishment?
I would say that mandatory life imprisonment without parole, to me, is a major human rights issue and violation. The U.S. is the only country that has such a thing. So, there's no globally recognized sanction about the penalty of life in prison without parole. Our country is the only one that has it and uses it.
Society has a right to be protected from violent offenders. There's no question about that. I would like to believe that all people can be given an opportunity to get better than the worst moment of their life. But if they can't, if they are too ill, too psychopathic or they just don't want to get better, then I think society should keep those people behind bars for the protection of other innocent people.
Is there a human rights implication in the racial makeup of prisons? Statistically, there are more black Americans incarcerated than white Americans. The same trend continues with executions.
I think that that is incontrovertible. African Americans, who only comprise 13 percent of this country's population, are clearly incarcerated at much greater percentages than their numbers in society. No question about it. The criminal justice system is inherent in its racism. We are in a nation of 330 million people and have several million people incarcerated, most of whom are poor and/or people of color.
We're in 2017 and most Americans don't want to face the fact that on issues of criminal justice and social justice issues, we remain a brutally racist society. That's just a fact. It's not a pretty one to face about ourselves in 2017, but that is — collectively as a people on issues of criminal justice and beyond — in large part who we remain. We're not in anything like a post-racial society. We are disgustingly racist country. It's amazing. We shouldn't be, but we are.
Do you think it's cruel to have prisoners wait on Death Row before they are executed?
Absolutely. Death Row is physical and psychological terror and torture. The death penalty is not just an act in which a human being is put to death in the name of the law. That's not the death penalty.
The death penalty is a process and it begins the moment an individual (an agent of the state) announces their intention to seek death. That process is dragged out through incarceration, trial, conviction, post-conviction appeals, time spent on Death Row, and ultimately execution — if that is carried out. So, time and conditions on death row absolutely are physical and psychological terror and torture.
Since we are a society that does have capital punishment, in your view, is there a way to carry out the death penalty without causing too much suffering?
No. There's no such thing as a humane or painless way to kill somebody.
You know, we have five [legal] methods of killing people. We have more methods of killing people than any country in the world. They're all legal. We don't use them much anymore, but they're all still legal. We used to hang people and we still shoot people. We strap people in electric chairs and sent anywhere between two and five thousand volts of electricity through their bodies and hope that they don't catch on fire, but frequently they do. Or we use lethal gas and the condemned person will disappear in a cloud of poisonous gas. But invariably, they'll cough, they'll choke, they'll sever part of their tongue, their eyes will bulge out.
Or we try to make ourselves feel better as a society by just saying, well, we'll chemically poison them. We'll strap them on a gurney and just put them to sleep. But even that has been horrifically botched. There's been over 50 botched, gruesomely botched, lethal injections. Including many in the last three years in states like Ohio, where an inmate took over 25 minutes to be put to death. In Oklahoma, where it was over 50 minutes. In Arizona, where it was almost 2 hours. So, we want to pat ourselves on the back and say that lethal injection is clean, quick and painless but the reality is it isn't.
There just isn't any way to make killing somebody that is pain-free and mistake free. It can't be done.
One of the ways the government tries to make an execution an easier process is to have doctors on site. But that seems to contradict a doctor's promise to heal people. What do you think about that?
The doctors are not supposed to be on site. The American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association has prohibited doctors and nurses and medical personnel from participating in executions with the threat of losing their medical license if they are found out.
Because they are not supposed to participate in a process which, if botched, the doctor would have to give the go-ahead that this individual is not dead and that the execution process would have to resume or continue in order to kill the person. They are not supposed to be in the death chamber. I am not under any illusions that several of them are, but it's outrageous. They should lose their license. They should not be participating in a system of human extermination.
People on death row have been exonerated due to newly discovered DNA evidence. What is your reaction to that?
I think it's great, of course. I think even pro-death penalty people would realize that we don't want to execute innocent people. So if DNA can help free somebody who should never have been convicted or incarcerated in the first place, then clearly that is a great usage of DNA to get somebody away from the shadow of death.
Sadly, most people who are on death row and most death penalty cases do not contain DNA. And the law in the United States is that if their case doesn't have DNA, you might be factually innocent, but the law says you can be put to death. That's the law in this depraved country. You can be innocent, but if you don't have DNA to help you, it's just too damn bad for you.
It's not your family member. It's probably not ever going to be you or anybody you know. But it is somebody. And the fact that this country says, "Well, sorry. A jury of your peers got it wrong and that's just too bad." It's depraved. But DNA to free people from death row is a great usage of that technology to spare innocent people.
You obviously think we are on the wrong path with capital punishment. What would you change in the United States to shift opinion on to the right path?
I would say education is a fundamental aspect in changing the culture in this country. Nobody in this country, per se, really talks about the death penalty a whole lot. But I think having mandatory human rights education in this country, starting in kindergarten and going through university, would do a lot of good.
People could study human rights the way they study any other subject. We ought to be about to talk about human rights in this country the way we talk about politics or sports. But we don't. There's no culture of human rights in the United States and it's a real pity. It's a great moral failing of younger and future generations. So, if we educated people about human rights and human dignity, we would have a better understanding as to how awful and how violent the death penalty is of people's basic human rights to a life with dignity.
Do you think capital punishment will end in the United States anytime soon?
However anybody feels about the death penalty, whether they're for it or against it or whether they don't even think about it, the process of ending the death penalty in the United States is already underway. We're not talking about if the death penalty is going to be ended. We're talking about when is it going to end. It's just a matter of when and how many more people are going to be put to death before it ends.
Many people in this country have come to learn about the death penalty, including pro-death penalty people, people who used to be fanatic supporters of the death penalty, have come to understand the shortcomings and the inherent flaws of the death penalty to change their opinions about it. The fact that 10 years ago, over 320 people were sentenced to death in this country and last year, only 30. Death sentencing is way down. Executions are way down. Removals from death row because of innocence are up. People's knowledge of the death penalty is better.
Are we still going to kill people in the immediate future? Sadly, yes. We killed 20 people last year in 2016. We have a bunch of people that are going to be killed this year. So, it's closer. I don't know when it's going to end, but sooner or later, this country is going to be death penalty free.