The State of Georgia plans to execute Kelly Gissendaner tonight. If the execution happens, it will be the first execution of a woman in Georgia since 1945. Faith leaders are calling for her life to be spared.
It will also be 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 sentenced to death in 1998 for asking her boyfriend to kill her husband. The man who actually killed the victim took a plea deal and will soon be eligible for parole.
Last week, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Ms. Gissendaner, despite statements from dozens of people, including two of her children, several prison volunteers, wardens, inmates, and clergy, who supported a reduction in her sentence. Her daughter, Kayla, 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.”
Her clemency petition contains detailed testimony about her mentoring and counseling of women who were suicidal or suffering from mental illness. “The other inmates could see when inmates were being escorted across the yard with cut-up or bandaged arms from attempted suicides, and would yell to Kelly about it,” said a former guard, Marian Williams, who enjoyed talking with Ms. Gissendaner about the Bible. “Kelly could talk to those ladies and offer them some sort of hope and peace.”
Numerous faith leaders attest to her spiritual transformation and religious commitment. Ms. Gissendaner completed a theology studies program offered by the prison. One of her teachers in the program, Dr. Jennifer McBride, said, “Kelly has done, and continues to do, this incredibly difficult work. She has gone back to her painful memories, taken responsibility for them in the present, and shown profound remorse about whom she had been and what she had done…The depth of her spiritual growth in prison has been visible and concrete.”
Ms. Gissendaner became deeply engaged in the work of Christian theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and killed by the Nazis, and Jurgen Moltmann. She sent Professor Moltmann a paper she had written on Bonhoeffer, and he wrote back, sparking a four-year-long correspondence that has sustained and inspired them both. Professor Moltmann visited Ms. Gissendaner in prison and gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony for the theology students there in 2011.
They discuss “theological and faith questions,” Professor Moltmann told the New York Times. “And I have found her very sensitive, and not a monster, as the newspapers depicted her. And very intelligent.” She has been rehabilitated, he said. “She has changed her mind, and her life.”
Professor McBride wrote on Facebook about the board’s decision to deny clemency to Ms. Gissendaner. “It was the most horrible thing I have ever experienced up close,” she wrote last Thursday. “It was pure evil wrapped in this respectability and law.”