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US executes Lisa Montgomery despite concerns over mental illness 

CNA Staff, Jan 13, 2021 / 03:39 pm (CNA).- Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, was executed early Wednesday morning, despite her attorneys’ arguments that her severe mental illness rendered her unable to understand why she was being killed.

Montgomery’s execution was one day after her scheduled execution date on January 12. On Monday, a court had issued a stay of execution as it was unclear if Montgomery was mentally competent enough to be executed.

Montgomery’s attorneys say she has brain damage and severe mental illness, including diagnoses of bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder associated with being a victim of abuse and human trafficking.

The attorneys argue that her mental state had deteriorated since the date of her execution was announced. She had reportedly begun hearing voices, and at one point said that “God spoke with her through connect-the-dot puzzles.”

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, January 12, that the execution could proceed. Montgomery, 52, is the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953.

“The application for stay of execution of sentence of death is presented to the Chief Justice and by him referred to the Court is denied. The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied,” said the Supreme Court on Tuesday. The death sentence had been stayed by the D.C. Circuit Court.

The Supreme Court later ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that “The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Barrett and by her referred to the Court is denied.” The order noted that Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor would have accepted the application and stayed the execution.

This decision was published early on Tuesday morning. No explanation was given for the decision.

Montgomery was executed by lethal injection and pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m. (EST), a little over an hour after the Supreme Court refused to stay her execution. She was executed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, home of the federal death row.

Montgomery was transported to Terre Haute on Tuesday morning, local media reported. She had previously been held at a federal prison in Texas. Male inmates on federal death row are housed in the U.S. Penitentiary.

Amy Harwell, one of Montgomery’s attorneys, told the Huffington Post that Montgomery was denied access to her spiritual advisor in the execution chamber.

“[Montgomery’s spiritual advisor] told her that after the execution started, he intended to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ while the chemicals flowed. That was the plan,” said Harwell.

“But when we arrived at the execution house, [Bureau of Prisons staff] did not allow him to be with her. I explained that he was her designated spiritual adviser and needed to be in the chamber with her. A woman said she’d go check, and then she came running back and said it was too late. Lisa was on the gurney, all strapped in,” she said.

Harwell called this a “needless indignity, and a deprivation of really her basic humanity.”

According to the Associated Press, Montgomery looked “momentarily bewildered” when she saw the crowd of journalists who had gathered to view her execution. The AP reported that Montgomery declined to give any sort of last statement.

One of Montgomery’s attorneys, Kelley Henry, called her execution the result of “the craven bloodlust of a failed administration,” and said that “everyone who participated in the execution of Lisa Montgomery should feel shame.”

Henry noted that Montgomery was the “victim of unspeakable torture and sex trafficking,” and that “no one can credibly dispute Mrs. Montgomery’s long standing debilitating mental disease.”

“Our Constitution forbids the execution of a person who is unable to rationally understand her execution. The current administration knows this. And they killed her anyway,” said Henry.

“As courts agreed Lisa’s case presented important legal issues warranting serious consideration – including whether she was competent to execute – the government hammered onward with appeals,” she said.

Henry described the execution as “far from justice,” and said that she never should have been sentenced to death, “as no other woman has faced execution for a similar crime.”

Montgomery was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant. Montgomery proceeded to cut open Stinnett’s uterus and delivered her child, a girl. She then kidnapped the girl across state lines. The girl was safely recovered the day following her mother’s murder.

Henry insisted that Montgomery was “much more than the tragic crime she committed, a crime for which she felt deep remorse before she lost all touch with reality in the days before her execution,” as well as the abuse she suffered throughout her life.

Henry called Montgomery a “loving mother, grandmother, and sister who adored her family,” and a devout Christian.

“When not gripped by psychosis, she was a gentle and caring person whom I was honored to know and to represent,” said Henry.

Multiple Catholic figures, including U.S. bishops, had spoken out against Montgomery’s planned execution, arguing that she was mentally unwell and that the death penalty itself is unjust.

In 2019, the Trump administration announced that federal executions would resume after a nearly two-decade moratorium.

Kentucky lawmakers pass two pro-life bills early in legislative session

CNA Staff, Jan 13, 2021 / 03:29 pm (CNA).- Lawmakers in Kentucky on Monday sent two pro-life bills to Governor Andy Beshear’s desk, both of which are likely to become law thanks to veto-proof majorities.

House Bill 2 would allow the state attorney general to directly investigate and prosecute abortion facilities for violations of recently enacted state laws, without relying on the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, as is currently the case.

In October 2020, an appeals court upheld several of Kentucky’s regulations on abortion clinics including that abortion facilities to have a transfer agreement with local hospitals, within a certain distance, in case of medical complications that could arise from abortions.

The second bill, Senate Bill 9, would make it illegal for medical professionals to deny medical care to babies born alive during abortions— a goal that has garnered support in several states and on the national level.

SB 9 also provides for born-alive infants to be legally recognized as persons under Kentucky law.

“A physician performing an abortion shall take all medically appropriate and reasonable steps to preserve the life and health of a born-alive infant,” the bill reads.

Kentucky Right to Life Association, which has supported the pair of bills, praised lawmakers for making the pro-life legislation a priority.

“We are sincerely grateful both of these important pieces of legislation were included in the 2021 “WEEK 1” House and Senate priorities,” the organization said Jan. 12.

Governor Beshear, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that combined the two policies last year. This year, the legislature passed both bills with veto-proof margins. Republicans hold a 3-to-1 supermajority in both chambers of the Kentucky legislature.

During September 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order clarifying existing laws regarding born-alive care, stating that hospitals that refuse to provide medical care to premature babies born during abortions or who have disabilities may be putting their federal funding at risk.

A federal law on the matter, the Born-Alive Infant Abortion Survivors Act, has been introduced several times in Congress, but has failed to become law. The bill stalled in the House of Representatives during 2019-2020 because an insufficient number of members signed a discharge petition which would have triggered a vote on the bill.

The proposed law would not have created any new limit or restriction on access to abortion, but would require that infants born alive after an attempted abortion be given appropriate medical care consistent with that given to a child of the same gestational age born under a different circumstance.

Similarly, lawmakers in Wyoming plan to revisit a legal measure to protect born-alive infants after a measure last year failed.

In March 2020 the Wyoming House of Representatives passed a born-alive bill 44-16 and the Senate passed it by 23-7, but the governor vetoed it.

The new bill, titled “Born alive infant-means of care,” is numbered Senate Filing 34. Its sponsor is State Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, a Republican. As of Jan. 8, she is joined by five other senators and nine state representatives who co-sponsored the legislation, according to the Wyoming legislature’s website.


Cardinal Dolan: Catholics more 'hung up' on abortion as Biden administration looms

New York City, N.Y., Jan 13, 2021 / 01:49 pm (CNA).- Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has explained why Catholics are not ashamed of being 'hung up’ on abortion, especially in the context of the upcoming Biden administration, in a Wednesday column.

Recalling a conversation with a politician who asked him, "why are you Catholics so hung up about abortion," the Archbishop of New York explained in a Jan. 13 column at Catholic New York that “actually, we’re obsessed with the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of all human life! Yes, the innocent, helpless life of the baby in the womb, but also the life of the death row prisoner, the immigrant, the fragile elderly, the poor and the sick.”

"As a matter of fact," Cardinal Dolan says, "this is not a uniquely ‘Catholic’ issue at all, but one of human rights. We didn’t learn that abortion was horrible in religion class, but in biology, and in our courses on the ‘inalienable rights’ tradition in American history.”

“How can we sustain a culture that recoils at violence, exclusion, suicide, racism, injustice, and callousness toward those in need, if we applaud, allow, pay for, and promote the destruction of the most helpless, the baby in the womb?”

Cardinal Dolan also writes that "pro-abortionists reassured us forty-eight years ago" that abortion would be kept safe, legal, and rare. "So much for the reassurances! We have hardly gotten used to it. Abortion remains the hottest issue in our politics, with polls showing that most Americans want restrictions on its unquestioned use, and do not want their taxes to pay for it."

"We’re even more 'hung up' now, as our new president, whom we wish well, and who speaks with admirable sensitivity about protecting the rights of the weakest and most threatened, ran on a platform avidly supporting this gruesome capital punishment for innocent pre-born babies."

"We’re all still cringing from the disturbing violence last week in Washington. This upheaval was made the more nauseating as it was seemingly encouraged by the one sworn to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law, and because it trashed the very edifice designed to be a sanctuary of safety, reason, civility, and decorum," the Cardinal added.

He finally praised President-elect Joe Biden for "reminding us that the rampage we saw was not America," and concluded by asking if we can hope "that violence will subside," and that “the sacredness of all life and the dignity of the human person will be revived, and that the sanctuary of the womb will be off-limits to violent invasion."

Report: North Korea, Nigeria among the worst countries for Christian persecution

CNA Staff, Jan 13, 2021 / 01:27 pm (CNA).- For the twentieth year in a row, North Korea tops the list of countries where Christians face oppression, according to a group that reports on global Christian persecution.

The advocacy group Open Doors released its annual World Watch List on Tuesday, documenting the countries where Christians face the most threats for their faith. North Korea again tops the list, and Nigeria has worsened to the point of entering the top 10 countries for persecution of Christians.

Overall, 340 million Christians worldwide face persecution, according to Open Doors, an increase of 30 million from last year.

The worst country, North Korea, lacks religious freedom, the report said. Here, “being discovered to be a Christian is a death sentence.”

Of the estimated 400,000 Christians in North Korea, around 50-75,000 of them are imprisoned in labor camps; for those Christians not killed by the state upon their discovery, they and their families face “horrendous” conditions in the labor camps, Open Doors said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the suffering of Christians in camps, the group says, as “North Koreans call it [the virus] the ‘ghost disease’ – because people are so malnourished already that they die very quickly.”

The World Watch List covers persecution during the time period from Nov. 1, 2019 through Oct. 31, 2020, and examines restriction on the practice of the Christian faith in a number of areas: private life, family life, community life, national life, church life, and violence.

Afghanistan and Somalia rank closely behind North Korea on the worst countries for Christians, according to Open Doors.

As in North Korea, Christians in Afghanistan and Somalia must keep their faith a secret as their lives are in danger if they convert from Islam to Christianity—and they even suffer at the hands of Muslim family members. In Somalia, there are only a few hundred Christians in a population of 16 million, Open Doors states.

The list of the 10 worst countries is similar to last year’s, with Sudan being removed and Nigeria added to this year’s list.

Violence in Nigeria against Christians has reached the level of genocide, according to some Christian leaders, as Christians are threatened by Fulani militants, the militant group Boko Haram, and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). An average of 10 Christians per day are killed in Nigeria, and attacks on villages and atrocities committed against women and children are often committed with impunity.

Iraq and Syria are both listed as having “extreme” levels of Christian persecution, and are numbers 11 and 12 on the list, respectively.

The pandemic has only worsened a tightening grip on Christian religious practice worldwide, Open Doors noted, and for the first time in the 29-year history of the report, all of the 50 worst countries for Christians had “very high” or “extreme” levels of persecution.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a bad situation into an unbearable one,” David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, stated. “This public health crisis created an opportunity to expand faith-based discrimination and violence in regions where religious persecution had already reached alarming rates.”

In addition to Nigeria’s rise to the top 10 list, China re-entered the top 20 worst countries for Christians for the first time in a decade, Open Doors noted, with government surveillance of Christians a problem--even documenting their phone messages.


Supreme Court debates whether college's free speech violation merits symbolic damages

Washington D.C., Jan 13, 2021 / 01:01 pm (CNA).- A Christian student seeking symbolic damages against a Georgia college that had restricted the area where he could try to evangelize saw his case go before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.

“Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where we are free to explore and debate ideas, but my college silenced me and are getting away with it,” Chike Uzuegbunam said Jan. 12. “Now that they have heard my story, I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will affirm my rights and the rights of all Americans, and that courts should hold officials accountable for violating our constitutional rights.”

Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom General Counsel, represented Uzuegbunam in U.S. Supreme Court arguments Jan. 12. The case is known as Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski.

“Our constitutional rights are invaluable and must always be protected,” she said in a statement. “When government officials treat our rights as worthless, those rights disappear. Changing unconstitutional policies is an important first step. But policy changes alone do not remedy the harm done to those whose rights were violated by the government.”

Uzuegbunam, raised in New York City by his Nigerian-born parents, converted to Christianity in 2013, the same year he began to attend Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga.

In summer 2016, he tried to distribute Christian pamphlets and talk to students outside the school library. A security guard told him he had to make a reservation for a place in one of two small spaces on campus designated as free speech zones. These spaces were only open 10 percent of the week and made up under 1 percent of the campus.

After Uzuegbunam made the reservation, he was told that there were complaints and he had to stop. Campus police told him his reservation only included handing out materials and having private conversation, and not speaking loudly, Deseret News reports.

“I went along with the policy, even though the zones made up 0.0015 percent of campus — the equivalent of a piece of paper on a football field — and were open only about 10 percent of the week,” Uzuegbunam said in a Jan. 11 opinion essay in the Washington Post.

“The administrators of public universities, and government officials generally, shouldn’t get a pass when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. No matter a person’s religious or political beliefs, in the land of the free, liberty belongs to every American,” Uzuegbunam said.

When college officials faced a legal challenge from Uzuegbunam and Joseph Bradford, another student who wanted to preach on campus, they changed their policy. As of 2017, students may demonstrate or distribute literature anywhere and anytime on campus without a permit, unless the group involved expects 30 or more participants.

The officials have said this change addressed the legal challenge. A lower court and an appeals court agreed.

However, Uzuegbunam and his attorneys said that the previous violation of his free speech deserved remedy.

In his Washington Post essay, Uzuegbunam suggested that officials who impinge on freedom should learn, “they can’t simply change the rules when someone protests and are then free to return to their unconstitutional ways whenever they like.”

He is seeking symbolic damages of $1.

During the arguments, held online due to the coronavirus epidemic, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested to Waggoner that it might be problematic that “the only redress you’re asking for is a declaration that you’re right.”

According to the Associated Press, Justice Elena Kagan wondered whether the case was bringing a lawsuit for “pure vindication alone.” At the same time, she noted the $1 symbolic award to Taylor Swift for sexual assault, who had successfully counter sued a former radio DJ after he filed a lawsuit claiming she falsely accused him of groping her and lost his job.

“Why isn’t that the same as this?” she asked. “The petitioner here says he was harmed. He wasn’t able to speak when he should have been able to speak...He’s just asking for $1 to redress that harm.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh thought there were “a number of things” working against the defense put forward by Georgia Solicitor General Andrew Pinson, who represented college officials.

He also voiced skepticism, saying, “I’m trying to, again, figure out what’s really at stake here. This is not about the $1, I wouldn’t think.” He said it was his “strong suspicion that attorneys fees is what’s driving all this on both sides.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was among the many groups to file an amicus brief in the case. The brief was co-signed with the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

The brief defended the use of “nominal damages” in response to “past wrongs without quantifiable economic harm” and especially useful in cases where First Amendment free speech and free exercise of religion rights are violated.

“Because a defendant’s conduct may grievously transgress these first freedoms without resulting in any measurable economic harm, nominal damages are often the only remedy available to vindicate those rights,” said the brief. Nominal damages help ensure judicial review when rights are violated, it added.

Other amicus briefs came from a wide variety of political and religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cato Institute, the Christian Legal Society, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.