Her life was turned to good behind bars, but “the machine is rigged not to stop.”
More than four hours after her scheduled execution, Kelly Renee Gissendaner, Georgia’s only woman on death row, was put to death by lethal injection at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday.
Gissendaner made a final statement and requested a final prayer, according to a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections. Witnesses to the execution told media that Gissendaner sang “Amazing Grace” all the way to the end.
As the 7 p.m. window on Tuesday for her scheduled execution came and went, Gissendaner’s lawyers filed petition after petition: one to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, one to the Georgia Supreme Court and three to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One by one, each motion was denied.
Earlier that day, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles had denied clemency for Gissendaner despite pleas from the pope and thousands more in the faith community.
Pope Francis, via his personal representative in the United States, appealed to the board for Gissendaner.
“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been presented to your Board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote on the pope’s behalf (see below).
Her supporters, including several who served with her in prison, said the 47-year-old mother of three found faith behind bars and helped others resist despair and rehabilitate themselves. They argued Gissendaner should be spared for the good she had done and could do in prison.
Retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice Norman Fletcher said that executing Gissendaner was unjust because her death sentence was not proportionate to her role in the crime. Fletcher voted 15 years ago to uphold that sentence, a vote he now regrets.
Gissendaner, a 47-year-old mother of three, was the first woman in 70 years to be executed in Georgia. She plotted with boyfriend Gregory Owen to kill her husband, Doug Gissendaner, in 1997. Owen, who committed the murder, will be eligible for parole in seven years.
Fletcher said in a statement this week that since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, Georgia has never executed a “non-trigger” person for a murder.
“There is a reason for this,” Fletcher said. “Kelly Gissendaner should not be the first.”
Gissendaner had been spared twice this year due to events beyond the control of lawyers or politicians. An execution date of Feb. 25 was put on hold due to a rare winter storm that affected travel conditions and prison staffing. A March 2 execution date was called off at the last minute when the lethal injection drug became mysteriously cloudy and deemed too risky to use.
“It was like a miracle. I feel like God has had a hand in it,” said Megan Chambers, a former inmate who met Gissendaner at Metro State Prison in Atlanta and is was among her many supporters.
Faith became a major facet of Gissendaner’s story thanks to her widely reported jailhouse conversion, her friendship with famed theologian Jürgen Moltmann and her one-woman ministry behind bars, which several inmates credited with saving their lives when they were on the brink of suicide.
“Maybe because she played a part in taking a life, she wants to save lives now,” said Chambers, who was on suicide watch when she met Gissendaner.
Chambers is one of the “Struggle Sisters,” a group of formerly incarcerated women who now communicate online to share everything from moral support to job leads. Several of the roughly 400 members served time with Gissendaner and had spoken out on her behalf.
Beyond the inherent value of Gissendaner’s life, she helped troubled inmates to rehabilitate themselves and thus had value that the Georgia Department of Corrections would be wise to recognize, Chambers said.
“Kelly did that. Prison doesn’t help you rehabilitate — prison’s a business,” Chambers said. “How could the state kill her when she’s more of a benefit alive?”
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