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Tanisha Montague abandoned her newborn daughter in the trash. Now she dreams of getting her back.
Photographs by Pilar Vergara
The small studio portrait shows that Angel Hope has grown into a cute bundle of gurgles. Curly-haired and smiling, the infant lies on her back on a white bed, in a frilly white outfit, her tiny booties kicking in the air. With large white wings attached to her brown body as a photo prop, she’s a cherub preparing for takeoff.
Every night, religiously, Angel Hope lands in Tanisha Montague’s dreams. And when she does, she is always up to her baby-girl mischief. She wants to play. She grasps at her mother’s breasts and lets loose. She’s not interested in feeding, only playing. It’s an energetic game that keeps Tanisha occupied all night and half the morning.
When it’s time to wake up, Montague has the hardest time getting out of her cot. She’s groggy and exhausted, wishing for some more sleep. As long as her baby wants attention, she wants to be there for her, if only in dreams.
That’s why when Montague is led out of her Montgomery County Detention Center cell and comes through the steel door to settle behind the glass visitors’ barrier, she complains of being tired. Her shoulders are slouched. And she’s clutching the latest photo of her daughter from the social worker. It’s the closest she can get to her baby right now.
Montague, 19, has been in jail since Jan. 26, the day when she left Angel Hope in a trash bin hours after giving birth. The teenager walked out to the trash building in freezing weather and placed her newborn in an open bin near the Germantown, Md., town house where she lived. A passer-by heard the child’s cries shortly before a garbage crew might have carted her away.
The police reports indicate that Angel Hope was found inside a plastic Kmart bag that had been tied closed, along with several items of trashbloody sanitary napkins and underwear, scribbled paper, a juice bottle, a chicken bone. The newborn still had amniotic fluid on her face and blood on her leg. She had been wrapped in nothing more than a pillowcase.
“Dumped and left for dead,” a local ABC news report teased. “An attempt to kill a sweet, innocent baby,” the prosecution railed. The state immediately charged Montague with “feloniously, willfully, and of deliberately premeditated malice aforethought” attempting to murder her child. Her bail was set at $1 million, a sum the recent immigrant didn’t have a prayer of collecting.
Prosecutors portrayed the teenager from Jamaica as a calculating young woman who had hidden her pregnancy because she feared that immigration authorities would discover she was staying in the U.S. on an expired visitor’s visa. They said she had lied to friends and family about being pregnant, despite many opportunities to reveal her condition, so as not to jeopardize her comfortable life in Maryland. She had even timed the moment when she placed the newborn in the trash, prosecutors said, to ensure that the garbage truck would crush the baby and conceal her secret.
In her defense, Montague maintained that she hadn’t known she was pregnant until her delivery. Then she panicked and hid the baby in the trash until she could figure out how to tell the family she was staying with about the birth. She said she intended to go back for the child.
Those were the parts she could explain. But how do you make a jury understand why you tried to clean and nurse your baby before throwing her in the trash? How do you persuade a group of strangers that your fear of your mother was greater than your fear of being pregnant? How do you get them to appreciate the power of denial, that deeply human coping mechanism that allows a young woman to convince herself she’s not pregnant even when she knows she is?
Montague couldn’t. In August, she was tried and convicted of attempted first-degree murder. She is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 2. The baby is now in foster care.
What Tanisha Montague did seems unimaginable in a nation where morning-after pills, abortions, and organizations like Project Cuddlewhich counsels mothers who are considering abandoning their babiesseem to cover all the scenarios of potential teenage disasters. Yet stories of adolescent girls abruptly abandoning newborns have become such familiar tragedies that several states have adopted laws allowing mothers to leave unwanted babies with officials at hospitals or police or fire stations, with no questions asked and no danger of prosecution.
Ironically, Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler, who personally decided to prosecute Montague to the fullest extent of the law, would like to see similar legislation passed in Maryland.
At least five Washington-area young mothers abandoned newborns after secretly giving birth between October 1998 and June 1999, according to the Washington Post and the Washington Times. In June 1999, a 17-year-old abandoned her baby in the basement of a Fairfax Catholic church; the baby lived. A week-old baby boy turned up in a flower pot at a church in Fort Washington, Md., in May 1999; the baby lived. In March 1999, a 25-year-old French au pair left her newborn on an Alexandria patio on a cold winter night; the baby perished. In February 1999, a 12-year-old Dumfries girl left her baby in an outdoor trash bin; the baby lived. In October 1998, an Arlington 15-year-old left her baby outside an apartment because, she told police, she was terrified of telling her mother; the baby lived.
Most of these cases resulted in either no prosecution or lesser charges being filed, largely because the prosecutors sympathized with a scared teenager.
And Gansler’s promotion of an amnesty law might suggest that he would have some sympathy for Montague. But the prosecutor says that’s not the case.
“The idea there is that it is not illegal to have sex. It’s not illegal to have a baby. It is illegal to take the baby and throw the baby in a trash can,” Gansler says. “I felt sympathy for the child. I felt no sympathy for the defendant at all. I knewI mean, I was there, and I’d seen her, and I’ve heard her reports, and she’s just a cold-hearted person.”
Montague’s defense attorney, Kenneth McPherson, concluded that reckless endangerment would have been a more appropriate accusation than what he considered the “hyped-up” charges against Montague.
“By charging her with attempted first-degree murder, the state’s attorney’s office gets to look tough, the case generates a lot of media interest, and it puts the jury in a position that they may be tempted to find her guilty when they would not otherwise, because the only alternative is that she walk away free,” says McPherson.
For eight months, almost one-third of the time she has been in America, Montague has been anything but free. She continues to wait for her fate to play itself out.
Montague’s story is different in the specificsand in the high-profile criminal case that has made her a pariahbut it is, at its root, a familiar one. It is a story about the power of denial, and panic, and the turbulent relationships that many teenage girls have with sex, and men, and, perhaps most of all, their mothers.
“Mommy, I want to learn to ride bike,” 10-year-old Tanisha squealed as she buzzed around her shiny new bicycle, recalls her mother, Lovina Turnbull Hibbert. The two were standing in front of their two-bedroom house in the notorious Waterhouse neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, an area that had produced famous reggae stars like Beenie Man but was also known for its violence and poverty.
“You want to ride bike?” Turnbull Hibbert asked in her island patois, as Tanisha scrambled onto the seat. “Pedal!” she commanded, giving the girl a push.
It was Turnbull Hibbert’s trademark sink-or-swim approach to raising Tanisha, and her daughter had come to expect it.
But there was another lesson around the same time, one that the child was utterly unprepared for. Before she had even mastered her balance on a bike, Montague says, she was molested by a man old enough to be her father.
He had been watching her for some time, and he liked what he saw. “He was telling me how much I look good and phat, and he want to just have a chance,” Montague recalls.
Had she known what his intentions were, she wouldn’t have spoken to him. But one day, when she went next door to visit her cousin, she passed the man on her way up the stairs. Her cousin wasn’t home, and as she came back down, he made his move. “He hugged me and held me back,” Montague says, remembering that she struggled as he lifted up her clothes. “I was screaming and acting like a wild animal because I’m just a child. He held me down and pushed his finger in me.”
Her mother didn’t believe her, Montague says, and her father, who had left the family’s home when she was 6, did nothing more than give the man a stern talking-to. From this and other bitter experiences, Montague says, she learned to keep her problems to herself, concluding that adults would do little to help or protect her. Once a bubbly, open child, Montague retreated into fits of crying and a world that few could gain access to.
And the unwanted attention continued. Even at her young age, men were lured to Montague’s body like fruit flies to a force-ripened mangoshe was tall and maturing earlyand her father wasn’t there to help fend them off. At school, she had to ward off advances from male teachers. One teacher, Montague recalls, “claimed that I was trying to make a pass at him.” Eventually, she had to change schools to avoid him altogether.
Montague’s unvarnished sex education continued on the day she got her first period, at age 12. She was afraid to tell her mother, so she ran to tell a neighbor, who promptly informed her mother anyway. Turnbull Hibbert was anxious not to have her daughter end up pregnant like other 12-year-olds in the neighborhood, so she drove fear into her heart with blunt words of caution.
“‘Tanisha, now that you seeing your period, your body developed. And if any time you start having sex, you can be liable to get pregnant,’” Turnbull Hibbert remembers telling her daughter. Instead of waiting for something like that to happen, Turnbull Hibbert threatened to take Montague straight to the doctor to get birth control pills.
“‘Mommy, you don’t have to carry me [to] family planning, because I’m not doing anything to get pregnant,’” Turnbull Hibbert remembers Montague saying. “‘I just hope and trust in the Lord that that is the way you say it,’” Turnbull Hibbert says she replied.
Her mother had been hammering the sex issue home for some time. “When me tell her them kind of stuff, me nuh bother pretty it up, yuh know,” Turnbull Hibbert says. “Me tell her it like it is. Me tell her how man will do.”
But the more Turnbull Hibbert, a recently born-again Baptist, tried to rein her daughter in with a rigid sense of morals, the more young Tanisha pushed the limits. So when her mother went to church, she would sneak out to visit friends or to party, only to have Turnbull Hibbert drag her home later. When it came, the punishment was swift: “She would beat me, scar me with anything she catchesa pot, a pan,” Montague says. “Somebody just have to tell her something, and she don’t ask me. Then she just fire her hands in my face.” Today, a long scar under her eyebrow is testament to her storyMontague says the scar was the result of one of her mother’s beatings.
The tense mother-daughter relationship was further exacerbated by Turnbull Hibbert’s new boyfriend, “Uncle Johnny,” who was taking up most of her mother’s time. Montague felt left out and unwanted. “Even though my mother tell me [when] I would ask her if she love me, I don’t feel it,” Montague says. “I just don’t feel that she really loved me. I just think she just saying it because I asked her. It caused the pain in my life, ’cause I feel put out and I wasn’t attached to her.”
Montague filled the void with a wide circle of older, male friends. Her reasoning was practical: Girlfriends were big on the he-say, she-say business and would run back to her mother to blurt out things she had trusted them with. And the kids her own age seemed immature, whereas the 17- and 18-year-olds she hung out with, Montague figured, could teach her about the real world.
After all, her mother seemed to be too busy getting pregnant againa pregnancy Montague says she noticed, when she was 14, even before her mother. “I told her to go check out herself, but she didn’t want to listen,” Montague recalls. She remembers something else, too: that Turnbull Hibbert once joked that if her daughter got pregnant, the girl would have to leave the house.
By age 15, Montague began to have sex herself. “It wasn’t really a decision. It was just to get in the game,” Montague says. “I was just hanging with the wrong set at the time. They were having sex and so I said, ‘Whoo! That was cool.’”
Men, she discovered, provided some solace in place of her broken family. “I had my intimate boyfriend, and the others were just like a using thing,” she says. “Like they don’t know that I’m not really their girlfriend. So if I’m pissed at this person I would just don’t talk to them….But I always have somebody on the side.”
The arrangement allowed for a lot of options, especially if one guy did something to make her upset. “If I’m pissed at you, I just have to do something to get you more angry. You know, revengeful,” Montague says.
But through it all, she knew she needed to be safe: “I said, ‘I’m grown. I reach the age that if I have boyfriends I have to protect myself.’ So I went to the drugstore and I got myself my birth control pills.” She used her lunch money to pay for the pillsand kept her secret from her boyfriends, as well as her mother.
Increasingly, Montague found herself at odds with her mother’s strict discipline, longing for some space. “I was getting very restless,” she recalls. “‘Cause I was getting very active and forget that that was the woman that gave birth to me….I was just tired of being abused.”
As far as Turnbull Hibbert was concerned, her daughter was acting like a guest on a wild American-style talk show, and there was one perfect place for behavior like that: America. “She just want [to] have her own way,” Turnbull Hibbert says, “and because she not going get that, I think America must be the place” where she belonged. “So now she knows what it is all about. She wanted to come. Because she was really acting wild, you know. She wanted to come. So me say, ‘All right.’”
Montague’s father, Patrick Montague, made plans to send his daughter to the United States on a visitor’s visa, to stay with Caroline Lyttle, a close friend of the family. Montague could baby-sit Lyttle’s two young children, maybe try to enroll in Montgomery College, and otherwise grow up and settle down, her father hoped. So in June 1998, the 17-year-old young woman packed her bags, careful to include a blond-haired, bottle-sucking doll.
“Come here. Can you come here?” The line sounded like a typical high school boy game to get a girl’s phone number, but Montague sized him up anyway. It was a sunny day in the spring of 1999, and as the car pulled by slowly in Montague’s Germantown neighborhood, the young man gawked at her from the passenger seat. “He was a scrub,” Montague says, thinking back on it now.
The way her striped tank top and brown bell-bottom pants hugged her body was reason enough to make him late for work. Eye contact was the only signal he needed to get his cousin to press the brakes.
In turn, she noticed how his dark skin looked against his white shirt and tie. And his eyes held a special kind of intrigue. She eased her pace a little and gazed back. He called her over. She pretended not to hear. He heckled some more. She stopped in her tracks. His cousin shifted the gear into reverse and as they rolled toward her, the car made a sound. But, she says, she was not the type to judge him because of that.
Up close, Montague thought, he was good-looking, with a stocky build, except that his legs didn’t seem to reach far enough under the dashboard. He gave her his number. She didn’t give him hers.
“Call me. Make sure you call me,” he said as he rode off. She didn’t know he had given her a pager number until she called later that evening.
“Who is this?” he said.
“Tanisha,” she replied.
“Oh, that sexy girl from…”
“Yeah, this is the same one you saw.”
As it turned out, Lennard Gilham lived right around the corner from Montague. Gilham was 23, and Montague was flattered that someone so much older would be interested. It was a welcome break from the monotony of baby-sitting Lyttle’s daughtersChadai, 4, and Chennel, 10. Until she met Gilham, there was little else to occupy Montague’s time besides occasional trips to the mall or the movies. She had one friend, Ashieka Abel, who was around her age, but for the most part she felt isolated, marooned in a suburb with no car and no steady social life.
Montague had turned her bedroom in Lyttle’s town house into a typical teenager’s haven, where styling gel, lipstick, and perfume shared space with a furry brown bear, the Lyttle children’s colorful baby pictures, and a tall white doll with her hair pulled out. The room reflected a person negotiating the transition from child to woman, trying to compensate for the innocence lost in Jamaica. Playing with the children in her care helped, Montague says: “Just filling up a little bit of the space that was missing.”
Gilham filled some of that space, too. He called frequently, and they talked for long stretches at a time. He was a sweet-talker, Montague says; she could speak with him about anything, and he would listen and say things to make her feel good. “I liked him a lot, because he was just stupid,” she explains, remembering his sense of humor. Lyttle, meanwhile, began to recognize the regular voice on the phone asking for Montague and told her, “If you gonna have a boyfriend, I want to meet whoever it is.” But Gilham never came over.
At one point, Montague asked one of Lyttle’s friends for some birth control pills. But her confidence was betrayed, and when Lyttle confronted her about the request, she seemed hostile.
“‘Are you having sex?’” Lyttle recalls asking Montague. Montague’s answer was evasive. “‘I’m sorry. Are you fucking, then?’” Montague said no, Lyttle remembers.
So Montague remained without birth control pills. In Jamaica, it was easy to get the pills over the counter. In America, she discovered, it wasn’t so simple.
Weeks later, when Montague went over to Gilham’s apartment and they had sex for the first time, she decided that it would be the lastand it was, she says, the only time they had sex. “It wasn’t up to my standard. He was like any average black man would’ve been,” Montague says.
But soon after, Montague mentioned to her friend Abel that she had missed her period. Abel later informed Lyttle, who decided to check things out by sitting both girls down in the living room. Confronted by Lyttle, Montague started crying and insisted that Abel was lying. Lyttle believed her.
The seeds of denial had been planted, for Montague as well as the people around her. There was no one the teenager felt she could trust with her fears. Certainly not her mother: “I’m not the type of person to tell her anything, because she wasn’t there,” Montague says.
Periodically, Lyttle would ask Montague if she was pregnant. “‘No, it’s just my period,’” Lyttle remembers Montague always answering. The spotting that happened occasionally, Montague says, she thought was her menstrual cycle, coming at irregular times. Her period was weird like that. Plus, there were no telltale symptoms of pregnancy: no morning sickness, no weight gain, no body changes. She was a size 16 and had always been a size 16. She was even able to carry a 19-inch TV up and down the stairs. She couldn’t be pregnant.
Entertaining the idea that she was, when she believed her parents were already disappointed in her, would mean shame that Montague couldn’t bear. She was supposed to get an education and go on to do something productive with her life, to change her ways and correct her attitude problem while she was in America. She wanted to prove herself to her parents. Then, maybe, she thought, they would show her that they loved her.
Turnbull Hibbert now says that had her daughter told her she was pregnant, she would have been upset, but she still would have opened her home to her daughter and the child. But Montague says her mother never gave her any reason to anticipate such understandingnot with all her stern warnings against getting pregnant. Not with her jest about throwing her daughter out of the house.
Just a day before Montague gave birth, her father called from Jamaica. She mentioned nothing out of the ordinary. Looking back on it now, David Bayton, Lyttle’s boyfriend, recalls that Montague started wearing baggy clothes and often, when speaking to family members, hid her body behind a wall. But no one knew. Montague had convinced herself, and the people in her life, that nothing was going on.
Surrounded by all these people, Montague found herself going through her worst nightmare alone.
That sucker had knocked her out before. But the kinds of cramps Montague was experiencing on Jan. 25 surpassed her worst menstrual cycle. “I was feeling faint. It wasn’t normal,” she said in court testimony. She curled up in a fetal position as the pain gripped her gut. When Lyttle came home, around 8 p.m., Montague asked to be taken to the hospital. Thinking it was just her period, Lyttle offered her some Advil, then Motrin, and warm ginger ale. But as the pain clenched down with a force that had her clambering up the stairs to pace in search of relief, the moment she feared most was approaching.
“I started [to] pee and this thing came ou-out,” Montague later testified tearfully. It was a large, jellylike thing. Gross. Looking at it made her shudder.
She tried to go to sleep. In a dream state, the painful reality didn’t exist. But she woke up. Ten-year-old Chennel came in to watch TV and saw Montague crying; she tried to help by putting her hand on Montague’s stomach. Eventually, Montague told the child she wanted to be left alone. Then something like morning sickness kicked in, for the first time during her pregnancy. It was shortly before midnight.
Montague started to bleed heavily. She filled the tub with warm water, took off her clothes, and climbed in, hoping to ease the pain. She had one foot on the faucet and the other in the tub as the pain throbbed in her lower back.
Suddenly, with one push, all the cramps were gone. As she drained the water from the tub, Montague says, she noticed the tiny girl. “‘Oh my god, oh my god! I’m having a baby!’” Montague recalls exclaiming. “‘I’m a mommy now! I have a baby!’”
She knew the baby was alive because of her eyes. “She had her eyes open. They were wide open. She was looking straight at me,” Montague says. Yet the newborn girl didn’t utter a single cry. The umbilical cord, Montague says, fell off.
After Montague wiped off the baby and tidied herself, she used Pine-Sol to clean up the afterbirth. Chennel and Chadai were sleeping. Lyttle, who was watching TV in the basement, heard the water running for a long time and called Montague on a second phone line. Montague told her that her period had come and she was just washing herself up. Shortly after, Montague went downstairs to ask for some pads. “‘Do you bleed heavy or light?’” Lyttle remembers asking her. “All I had is some panty liners, and I gave her the pack.”
Later, Lyttle went upstairs to get some water and the stench of Pine-Sol hit her. She says she wondered what Montague had been cleaning. But she didn’t pursue it.
Montague lay down next to the baby, reached for her Bible, and it opened to Psalm 25:
Turn to me and be gracious to me
For I am lonely and afflicted
The troubles of my heart are enlarged
Bring me out of my distresses
Look upon my affliction and my trouble
And forgive all my sins.
“I prayed with the baby in my prayer and I asked for somebody to help me, ’cause I’m scared,” Montague recalls. No one came.
She wrapped her arms around the baby and tried to breast-feed her, but the newborn wouldn’t suckle. Montague thought about going to the refrigerator to pour milk in a cup for the baby but decided against it. “It’s like she was full. Just like when I’m full and I don’t want to eat anything,” Montague says. The baby played with her breasts, Montague says, and eventually spit out a white substance.
Mother and child fell asleep for a while, but when Montague woke up to use the bathroom, she said she felt she couldn’t leave. “The baby open her eyes and looked at me, like she saying, ‘Don’t leave me,’” Montague says. Even the baby seemed to judge her, making her feel ashamed and guilty.
Around 6 a.m., Montague collected the trash into a white Kmart plastic bag. She put on her green jacket, reached for something to wrap the baby in, and tucked her under the jacket. She went outside, carrying the baby in one hand and the bag in the other, and walked 290 feet to Trash Building 11. She opened the door and lowered the bag into the third brown bin to the right.
“Then I started going crazy, ’cause I didn’t know what to do. I get scared,” Montague testified. She said she paced back and forth, fell to the ground, and prayed for 10 minutes. She later told the police she didn’t know how the baby ended up in the bag; perhaps, she suggested, the newborn might have rolled in or crawled in. By then, the reality of what was happening was too much for Montague to deal with. She says she was operating as if in a daze and doesn’t remember twisting the handles of the plastic bag. The baby started crying. “I told her I loved her,” Montague recalls. “‘I’ll be right back,’” she says she told the child. She says she walked back inside, intending to ask Lyttle for permission to keep the baby in the house. But Lyttle was still asleep, and she didn’t want to wake her up.
But by the time she went back outside to retrieve the baby, Montague says, less than an hour later, it was too late. Police and news reporters were everywhere. She backed away, trying to get a view of the trash room by shoveling snow from around Lyttle’s SUV. “That was my baby, and I loved my baby and I wanted to know what happened to her,” Montague later testified. She talked to neighbors and a news reporter to find out if the baby was OK. The people she talked to later told authorities that she seemed as if she was in a trance.
It felt like an eternity before movement occurred in the Lyttle household. But around noon, Lyttle saw her housing community featured on the television news. A flash of fear and recognition overcame her. She bolted up the stairs to the bathroom, where she found blood spots on the mat, a splash of blood on the towel, and more blood on the carpet. She burst into Montague’s room to confront her.
“‘Tanisha, what’s going on?’” Montague recounted the conversation in her court testimony.
“‘Is the baby that I saw on TV yours?’”
“‘Yes, it was my baby.’”
“‘I didn’t know what to do. I was scared.’”
When the police got to Lyttle’s house, Montague was sitting on the sofa, crying and squeezing a teddy bear.
Montague didn’t realize that she was under arrest. She told her story fully for the next two hours, waiving her rights to remain silent and to consult with an attorney. She thought that as long as she cooperated, everything would be OK and she would get her baby back. The Montgomery County police took her to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital to be checked for the first time during the whole ordeal.
Reality didn’t dawn on her until later in the day, when the police stopped at the Central Processing Unit on Seven Locks Road, told her to get out of the car, and snapped the cold metal handcuffs onto her wrists. Hours after being assured that everything would be OK, and thinking that the officers were her friends, she was charged with attempting to murder her baby. She was led to a holding cell. And the day after her 19th birthday, Jan. 28, began with her mug shot broadcast on television.
Caribbean political and social groups, led by the Caribbean Interest Group, tried to rally to Montague’s defense, broadcasting appeals for help on WPFW radio and holding a fundraiser at the Crossroads nightclub. But the groups soon found that a young woman accused of attempting to kill her baby didn’t make for the most sympathetic cause. They raised enough to hire a defense attorney, but they couldn’t muster the deposit on Montague’s $1 million bail.
“The bail was not in line with the circumstances surrounding the accused,” says Nikongo BaNikongo, chair of the Caribbean Interest Group. “It did not consider her financial situation, her age, or her state of mind. I regarded it as excessive when viewed in conjunction with the crime alleged and with the precedents established in similar cases.”
Prosecutors and courts in similar cases around the countryeven some that have ended in the deaths of newbornshave treated cases very differently. In 1997, in New Jersey, Melissa Drexler, then 18, gave birth in a high school bathroom stall during her prom, allegedly strangled the baby and threw him in a plastic bag in the trash, then went out to the dance floor to request a favorite song. She ended up pleading guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In 1996, in Delaware, Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, both 18, faced an unintentional pregnancy. They drove to a motel, where the baby was born, and allegedly fractured the newborn’s skull, put the body in a trash bag, and threw it away. They were freed on $300,000 bail, greeted by “Welcome Home” signs from their neighbors, and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. They each served less than two years in prison.
In both of those nationally prominent cases, the courts took into account the confusion and emotional distress that pregnant teenagers often endure. Prosecutor Gansler, however, saw no reason for sympathy in Montague’s case.
“Obviously, she tried to act up on the stand, and then she attempted to cry for an hour and couldn’t get any tears out,” Gansler says. “So I have no sympathy for her at all. Because I’m aware of what her conduct was on the night of this attempted murder. I’m aware of her conduct the next morning of the attempted murder. I’m aware of her conduct at the jail since she was put there.”
In the end, the money the Caribbean groups raised was not enough to allow McPherson to hire a psychological expert, who might have been able to help explain her actions to the jury. A state mental health evaluation was performed, but its purpose was solely to determine her competence to stand trial.
Diane Sanford, a psychologist and president of the Women’s Healthcare Partnership in St. Louis, is familiar with cases like Montague’s. After hearing a description of Montague’s case, Sanford believes the teenager was at high risk for psychological problems. Montague was poor, was alone throughout her pregnancy, and lacked family support. She had been sexually abused as a child, had suffered feelings of neglect from her parents, and had endured a traumatic birth without support from the baby’s father. She showed evidence of low self-esteem and depression.
“We shouldn’t judge her based on her actions,” Sanford says, “but on the mental state that she was in when it happened.” Sanford believes the problem facing a lot of teenage mothers who abandon their babies is that the system is set up to prosecute them without allowing them the benefit of proper psychological evaluation.
Montague’s trial lasted four days. On the first day, Gansler and his assistant rolled in a large brown trash binthe same kind the baby had been inand placed it in the jurors’ view, where it stayed for the duration of the trial. During jury selection, the judge asked the potential jurors to raise their hands if they had donated money to Gansler’s campaign.
Such a question was relevant because Gansler is frequently in the news, giving quotes that reporters love. Recently, he participated in an online chat session with the Post about drunk driving. Gansler likes publicity. He’s young37charming, a Yale graduate, and GQ-stylish, so much so that he says his superiors have asked him to wear more “old people” clothes. And he’s been involved with several high-profile cases, including the Sam Sheinbein extradition case and the conviction of boxer Mike Tyson on assault charges. Gansler, who has been in office almost two years, says he intends to personally try at least one major case each year.
“Did you like my closing?” Gansler often hovered near reporters during Montague’s trial, eager to answer their questions. And he was unrelenting in his questioning of Montague on the witness stand. At the end of his cross-examination, he slammed her with this question: “Isn’t it true that you called the baby Angel because you wanted her dead?”
It took the jury just under six hours to return a guilty verdict. In his closing, Gansler had emphasized that the jurors’ decision should not be based on sympathy, and he was on hand afterward to comfort them and let them know they had done the right thing. Then he took questions from reporters, mentioning the baby-abandonment legislation he’s working to get passed.
Although state officials nationwide see such bills as a way to prevent abandonments and neonaticides, critics have raised several concerns. Some fear that the no-questions-asked policy makes it too easy for young mothers to abandon their babies. Children are left with no medical histories and unanswerable questions about their origins. Isolated, scared teenagers aren’t necessarily likely to show up at state facilities to leave their babies. And some critics contend that what they term “legalized baby dumping” encourages mothers to avoid the more rigorous adoption process.
Ever since she was arrested, Montague has been frantically trying, from behind bars, to arrange care for her child, and perhaps even keep custody of Angel Hope within her extended family. Although her baby was called Jane Doe when she was found and Molly in the hospital, Montague says she named her daughter after how she felt about everything that had happenedand her hope that they will be reunited.
On a Sunday in March, Montague is sitting in her blue prison jumpsuit on the other side of the glass visitors’ partition. BaNikongo brings her the latest news about her daughter. Through a crusty black phone, he tells Montague that Gilham is threatening to sign the baby over to the state. Her arms collapse. Her head falls. The tears are uncontrollable.
“‘What’s gonna happen to my child while I’m in here?’” Montague recalls asking Gilham in one plaintive telephone call from jail. He has made it clear he wants nothing to do with heror the baby. Gilham, who both Gansler and McPherson confirmed is the father of the baby, declined repeated Washington City Paper requests for an interview.
“I was talking to him and asking him why he couldn’t get the baby,” Montague recounts. “Not like he have to spend his money on her. My family is willing to take care of her. Just get the baby out of the foster care.”
In the meantime, Montague struggles to keep herself balanced. After eight months in jailduring which she has gone through four anger-management sessions, two Christian parenting classes, and several “moral recognition therapy” classesshe can do little more than wait while life happens to her. She hopes to be able to take care of her baby and dreams of some day becoming a judgeor a flight attendant. But the decisions are not in her hands.
In fact, McPherson says, the longest sentence Montague is likely to receive is 10 years, but he hopes the judge will consider that the time she has already spent in prison has been punishment enough.
Those closest to Montague say they still cannot understand what happened. Her father thinks that something inside her must have snapped. Lyttle wishes that Montague hadn’t shut her out; she was only a door away.
And her mother has many unanswered questionsbut hopes her daughter will not be regarded as a monster. “I know,” Turnbull Hibbert says, “she’s really sorry for what she has done.”
Montague herself maintains that she will regret her actions for the rest of her life. “I’m still pissed off. I still beat myself up. I made a stupid choice,” she says. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.