“The Role of Theory in Saving Lisa Montgomery” – Soyun Jang
To quote Jon McKenzie from this seminar, “theory is the problem, not the solution”, (McKenzie, Harvey, and Cinibulk 2021). Emphasizing the importance for the academy to engage with the world, McKenzie suggests that we merge critical thinking with critical design, “becoming cosmographer or co-designer of worlds” (McKenzie 2019). Critical design in this case extends media-making and collaborative building into the public sphere, focusing on human-centered design in relation to social and organizational problems (McKenzie 2019, 111). McKenzie explains that when it comes to co-designing world, specialized knowledge from one’s field becomes but a small part of problem-solving as the solution “emerges not from expert knowledge or interdisciplinary skills per se, but from the field itself in all its complexity” (2019, 111).
As a case study, Jon McKenzie, Laura Harvey and Veronica Cinibulk (2021) presented a project from Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide that aims to save Lisa Montgomery from execution. Montgomery was charged with strangling a pregnant woman and fleeing with her baby whom Montgomery had cut out of her abdomen (Lussenhop 2021). Though there is no doubt that she had committed a terrible crime, lawyers involved in this project argue that execution is an excessive punishment as she committed her crime during a psychotic episode, a result of sexual, physical, and mental abuse that had started in her childhood (Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, n.d.). In this short blog post, I review a matter that, to me, was not entirely made clear in the seminar – what the role of theory is in this project.
First of all, theory – research on death penalty law and practices in the United States in this particular case – provides a solid basis on which the claims for Lisa Montgomery’s pardon from execution to be made. Grounding their argument on mental incompetence and past cases, theory provides clear and logical reasons why capital punishment is unlawful for Montgomery’s case.
On the other hand, when grounded in humanities, theory allows the project to take a step back from the legal battles to shift to a more human-centered thinking. It questions the complex problems within the United States’ legal system – such as why Lisa Montgomery did not have competent legal representation – and the misogyny that lies at the basis of her prosecution. This is where theory can merge into “design thinking”, a term McKenzie introduces to indicate a method of design that aims to tackle social and organizational problems (2019, 111).
As McKenzie (2019) and this seminar has shown in its case study, theory need not be secluded from practice. It is true that, in the end, theory is not necessarily the solution to these problems. In the case of Lisa Montgomery, who was executed on the 13th of January, the solution may have been better publicity and politics. However, it can contribute to the problem-solving process when it integrates into practice, whether it is by providing a solid ground on which civic discourse can be built or by offering a collaborative, design-oriented effort based on human-centered thinking.
 More on this project can be found on the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide website: https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/project/savelisa/.
 Prosecutors scorned the evidence of Montgomery’s rapes as an “abuse excuse” and framed her as a bad mother who does not cook and clean (Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, n.d.).
- Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. n.d. “The Case of Lisa Montgomery.” Accessed February 08, 2021. https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/project/savelisa/.
- Lussenhop, Jessica. 2021. “Lisa Montgomery: Looking for answers in the life of a killer.” BBC, January 13, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55587260.
- McKenzie, Jon, Lara Harvey and Veronica Cinibulk. 2021. “Performing Rapid Response Design Justice: #HerWholeTruth, Lisa’s Song & Girl Squads.” Moderated by Maaike Bleeker. Seminar presented at Transmission in Motion Seminar (2020-2021): Knowledge in Making – Design by Doing, Utrecht University, January 27, 2021.
- McKenzie, Jon. 2019. “Becoming Cosmographer” Co-designing Worlds. In Transmedia Knowledge for Liberal Arts and Community Engagement: A StudioLab Manifesto, 109-45. London: Palgrave Pivot.