After a five-hour delay, Georgia death row inmate Kelly Renee Gissendaner was executed on September 30 after an appeal by her children and attorneys failed in Georgia and federal courts. She had been scheduled to die on September 29 at 7 p.m. Three appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court were denied. Her family chose to make a final appeal in front of the building housing the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Daughter Kayla Gissendaner told the media, "We chose to try and save her life, and they still denied us."
Pope Francis sent a request to the board to reconsider carrying out the death penalty in Gissendaner’s case. A representative for Pope Francis sent a letter saying that the Pope wanted the board to spare Gissendaner's life. "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," the letter read. A spokesman for the board declined to say whether the Pope’s letter was taken into consideration, saying what happens inside the hearings is private.
On the night of the execution of the death sentence, Gissendaner walked to the execution chamber where she saw through a window the witnesses who had been selected. She immediately began to sob. She then made a final statement in which she apologized to “an amazing man that lost his life because of her," according to a witness.
After Gissendaner was strapped down on the table where she would receive the lethal injections that would take her life, she began to sing the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace.” Shortly, thereafter the execution of the sentence was carried out, and Gissendaner was dead.
The family of Gissendaner's slain husband, Douglas, said they trusted Georgia’s legal system. "Kelly planned and executed Doug's murder. She targeted him and his death was intentional. Kelly chose to have her day in court and after hearing the facts of this case, a jury of her peers sentenced her to death," the statement from the murdered man’s family read in part. "As the murderer, she's been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug, who, again, is the victim here," it said. "She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take."
Nonetheless, the children of the ill-fated couple pleaded with authorities to show mercy. "My dad would not want my mom to be executed, even knowing her role in his murder," wrote Kayla Gissendaner in an earlier statement. "He would not want us to endure another devastating loss." Daughter Kayla said that Kelly Gissendaner had changed over the last 18 years. "I had to face what my mom had done and find a way to forgive her," she said. "In the process, I saw that my mom had struggled through the years to come to grips with what she had done and face her own horror about her actions."
In 1997, Kelly Gissendaner persuaded lover Gregory Owen to murder her husband, Doug Gissendaner. Owen had recommended a divorce, but Kelly Gissendaner preferred killing since she believed her husband would harass her after a divorce. After plotting with Gissendaner, Owen eventually bludgeoned and stabbed the victim to death. Gissendaner showed up just as the murder was taking place. They tried to hide the evidence by burning Doug’s body, but forensic evidence and police interviews eventually caused the unraveling of their lies. Owen is currently serving a life sentence.
Kelly R. Gissendaner at the time of her arrest
Both defendants were offered identical plea bargains before trial. Prosecutors offered them life in prison, with an agreement to not seek parole for 25 years. Owen agreed to the deal, and then testified against his former lover. The lawyers who argued her appeal said that Gissendaner had been willing to plead guilty to the crime, but consulted with her trial lawyer and asked prosecutors to remove the stipulation about waiting 25 years to apply for parole. Her lead trial attorney thought the jury would not sentence her to death "because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug. ... I should have pushed her to take the plea but did not because I thought we would get straight up life if she was convicted." Her appeal lawyers argued that Gissendaner's sentence was "disproportionate" compared to that of her co-defendant.
A petition begging clemency on the part of Gissendaner was signed by more than 90,000 people and sent to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. The petition claimed that Gissendaner had reformed her life, while saying she was a "powerful voice for good."
"While incarcerated, she has been a pastoral presence to many, teaching, preaching and living a life of purpose," the petition stated. "Kelly is a living testament to the possibility of change and the power of hope. She is an extraordinary example of the rehabilitation that the corrections system aims to produce."
Kelly Gissendaner and death chamber
Gissendaner was the only woman on death row in the U.S. at the time of her death. Only 15 female inmates have been put to death in the United States since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The last woman executed in Georgia died in the electric chair in 1945. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1973, there have been 57 men executed in Georgia. Gissendaner is scheduled to be the 35th inmate put to death by lethal injection.
In February 2015, an earlier date of execution was avoided when the Department of Corrections indefinitely postponed Gissendaner's execution after finding "cloudy" lethal injection drugs. The constitutionality of lethal injection drugs has made headlines in recent years, while European manufacturers -- such as Denmark-based Lundbeck, which manufactures pentobarbital -- banned U.S. prisons from using their drugs in executions in 2013. That meant 32 states had to find new drug protocols.
Retired police officer Marcus Easley of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was one of Gissendaner’s supporters. He told CNN that her last words before leaving for execution were: "I love you, I love you, I love you. I am so proud of you."
According to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classfication Prison in Jackson GA, Gissendaner requested the following as her last meal:
Side of buttermilk
Two Whoppers with cheese (with everything)
Two large orders of French fries
Cherry vanilla ice cream
Salad with boiled eggs, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, carrots, cheese and Paul Newman buttermilk dressing