Last night, Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner for the murder of her husband, while the man who committed the murder will be eligible for parole in eight years. Her execution was the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 that Georgia has executed someone who did not personally kill the victim.
Ms. Gissendaner was almost executed earlier this year. The execution was stopped at the last minute because the lethal injection drugs appeared cloudy.
After a new execution date was set, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles agreed to reconsider her application for clemency. Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher and former State Corrections Deputy Director Vanessa O’Donnell asked the Board to grant clemency, joined by Pope Francis, who just last week challenged our nation’s leaders to end capital punishment, and dozens of witnesses to Ms. Gissendaner’s mentoring, counseling, and religious commitment.
In a letter to the Board, Justice Fletcher wrote that Ms. Gissendaner’s death sentence is disproportionate to her role in the murder. “The State of Georgia has not executed a person who did not commit the actual killing since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976,” he wrote. “There is a reason for this. Kelly Gissendaner should not be the first.” He went on to say he had been wrong to join with other justices in ruling that her sentence was proportionate.
O’Donnell, who was the warden from 2001 to 2004 at the state prison in which Ms. Gissendaner was incarcerated, urged the Board to grant clemency because of her “exceptional prison adjustment, her role in the crime as compared with her co-defendant who is serving a life sentence, her remorse, and the pleas of the Gissendaner children.” She said that Ms. Gissendaner had “reached out to other inmates at their lowest ebb of despair and helped them to recognize their worth and to see a path out of prison” and, if spared, “can provide hope to the most desperate female offender in a manner no one else could possibly understand.”
Writing to the Board on behalf of Pope Francis, Archbishop Carlo Vigano implored it “to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy.” Soon after, the board announced it would not grant clemency.
Ms. Gissendaner’s daughter, Kayla, earlier told the board, “My father’s death was extremely painful for many people, but I’ve recently concluded that in many ways I was the person who was most impacted by his murder. The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can’t fathom losing another parent.”
People present for the execution said that Ms. Gissendaner prayed and sang “Amazing Grace” until she was given a lethal injection.
The execution of a woman who received a harsher penalty than the man who committed the murder exemplifies the arbitrariness of the death penalty in this country, and reinforces Pope Francis’s recent call for abolition. It also raises critical questions about how capital punishment can be reconciled with the American commitment to fairness, justice, and mercy.