Next month Lisa Montgomery, who strangled a pregnant woman and then disemboweled her to steal her baby, will be the first woman to be executed by the United States government in 67 years.
Is she crazy or not? Does she deserve to die for the crimes she has committed? The debate around capital punishment and mental illness is at the heart of the documentary “Crazy, Not Insane”, broadcast from Wednesday by the HBO channel, which follows the career of the famous psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis, specialist in serial killers .
Lisa Montgomery, 52, was sentenced to death in 2007 by a federal court. Donald Trump’s administration decided to resume executions at the federal level last summer, and a court refused to recognize criminal irresponsibility linked to insanity. There is therefore nothing to prevent the 50-year-old from receiving a lethal injection.
“You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know that this woman is very, very mentally disturbed,” Dr Lewis told AFP. “Because finally, so many things in her are psychosis”, indignant the expert, who says “appalled” by the decision to execute. “I don’t understand, where this incredible thirst for blood comes from,” she blurted out.
Dorothy Otnow Lewis spoke to as many as 22 serial killers and founded a clinic for young criminals. She argues that the disorders that lead to violence and murder are usually the result of extreme childhood abuse and neurological problems, not the expression of an “innate” urge to do wrong.
To avoid the death penalty, Lisa Montgomery’s lawyers had also extensively cited the sexual abuse she had suffered in her youth as well as head injuries.
“Vitriol and revenge”
The HBO documentary reviews numerous serial killers, ending with one of the most sinister patients Dr. Lewis has examined: Ted Bundy, who confessed to a series of rapes and at least thirty murders. He terrorized the United States in the 1970s and has become for many a symbol of pure evil.
Mr. Bundy says he had a most normal and very happy childhood. But Ms Lewis believes the killer suffered from dissociative identity disorder (DID), also known as multiple personality disorder, brought on by the violent upbringing instilled by her grandfather Sam.
In the HBO documentary, the psychiatrist shows love letters written by Ted Bundy but signed “Sam”. However, individuals suffering from this type of disorder frequently take on the identity of those who abused them, to protect themselves, she says.
“Dorothy is not saying that we should not protect society from people like them, who may be unable to control themselves and commit violent acts or murder,” Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney told AFP.
“She just says it’s wrong if you think they just decided one day to do something bad and bad just for fun,” he says. “I think Dorothy’s deep empathy is important because it is based on scientific theory.”
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and urged the various American states to do the same, but such a decision risks being too late to spare Lisa Montgomery.
For Alex Gibney, the decision of the Trump administration to carry out these executions is “a powerful political weapon” which can “flatter the lowest instincts of the voters”.
He recalls that Donald Trump is not the only president to have used this tool, citing in particular the mass executions and imprisonments authorized in his time by Democrat Bill Clinton.
But the director points out that Mr. Trump has long supported the death penalty.
“Donald Trump lost this election but he collected 70 million votes,” he said. “Whatever your posture, it is not about a political vision but the ability to stir up a feeling of anger, vitriol and revenge.”