“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."