ATLANTA — Kelly Renee Gissendaner’s supporters want last week’s postponement of her execution made permanent.
It doesn’t seem likely, given the rulings by the highest state and federal courts and Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles, but that hasn’t stopped her family and friends from pleading with the state to stop the execution.
A petition saying the mother of three has turned her life around, even earning a theology degree while in prison, had garnered more than 40,000 signatures as of Monday morning, just hours before her execution. Organizers plan to deliver it to Gov. Nathan Deal, though in Georgia, the governor has no authority to grant clemency.
Gissendaner, 47, has become a “powerful voice for good,” the petition says of the woman convicted of orchestrating her husband’s death in 1997.
“While incarcerated, she has been a pastoral presence to many, teaching, preaching, and living a life of purpose,” the petition states. “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.”
On Sunday night, about 200 people attended a vigil at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel, where they sang her praises.
“Killing her is not going to bring anything back. It’s not going to undo what’s been done,” priest Kelly Zappa told CNN affiliate WSB.
Added the Rev. Della Bacote of Nashville: “I’m heartbroken because I testified on Tuesday at the clemency hearing. I heard what others had to say, and I was so moved.”
A few days’ reprieve
Not since Lena Baker, an African-American convicted of murder and pardoned decades later, has Georgia executed a woman. The state was scheduled to snap that 70-year streak last week before Gissendaner’s execution was postponed.
Just hours before she was scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson on Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Corrections announced it had postponed the execution until Monday at 7 p.m. “due to weather and associated scheduling issues,” department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said in an email.
Gissendaner was convicted in a February 1997 murder plot that targeted her husband in suburban Atlanta.
She was romantically involved with Gregory Owen and conspired with the 43-year-old to have her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, killed, according to court testimony. Owen wanted Kelly Gissendaner to file for a divorce, but she was concerned that her husband would “not leave her alone if she simply divorced him,” court documents said.
The Gissendaners had already divorced once, in 1993, and they remarried in 1995.
A nightstick and a hunting knife
Details of the crime, as laid out at trial and provided by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, are as follows:
Kelly Gissendaner and Owen planned the murder for months. On February 7, 1997, she dropped Owen off at her home, gave him a nightstick and hunting knife, and went out dancing with girlfriends.
Douglas Gissendaner also spent the evening away from home, going to a church friend’s house to work on cars. Owen lay in wait until he returned.
When Douglas Gissendaner came home around 11:30 p.m., Owen forced him by knifepoint into a car and drove him to a remote area of Gwinnett County.
There, Owen ordered his victim into the woods, took his watch and wallet to make it look like a robbery, hit him in the head with the nightstick and stabbed Douglas Gissendaner in the neck eight to 10 times.
Kelly Gissendaner arrived just as the murder took place, but she did not immediately get out of her car. She later checked to make sure her husband was dead, then Owen followed her in Douglas Gissendaner’s car to retrieve a can of kerosene that Kelly Gissendaner had left for him.
Owen set her husband’s car on fire in an effort to hide evidence and left the scene with Kelly Gissendaner.
Police discovered the burned-out automobile the morning after the murder but did not find the body. Authorities kicked off a search.
Kelly Gissendaner, meanwhile, went on local television appealing to the public for information on her husband’s whereabouts.
Her and Owen’s story started to unravel after a series of police interviews. On February 20, Douglas Gissendaner’s face-down body was found about a mile from his car. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be knife wounds to the neck, but the medical examiner couldn’t tell which strike killed Douglas Gissendaner because animals had devoured the skin and soft tissue on the right side of his neck.
On February 24, Owen confessed to the killing and implicated Kelly Gissendaner, who was arrested the next day and charged.
While in jail awaiting trial, Kelly Gissendaner grew angry when she heard that Owen was to receive a 25-year sentence for his role in the murder. (Owen is serving life in prison at a facility in Davisboro, according to Georgia Department of Corrections records.)
She began writing letters to hire a third person who would falsely confess to taking her to the crime scene at gunpoint.
She asked her cellmate, Laura McDuffie, to find someone willing to do the job for $10,000, and McDuffie turned Kelly Gissendaner’s letters over to authorities via her attorney.
Kelly Gissendaner has exhausted all state and federal appeals, the attorney general said in a statement last week. The State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied her clemency request, Steve Hayes, a spokesman for the board, said Wednesday.
In the clemency application, Gissendaner’s lawyers argued she was equally or less culpable than Owen, who actually did the killing. Both defendants were offered identical plea bargains before trial: life in prison with an agreement to not seek parole for 25 years.
Owen accepted the plea bargain and testified against his former girlfriend. Gissendaner was willing to plead guilty, her current lawyers said, but consulted with her trial lawyer and asked prosecutors to remove the stipulation about waiting 25 years to apply for parole.
According to her clemency appeal, her lead trial attorney, Edwin Wilson, said he 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 also argued that Gissendaner had expressed deep remorse for her actions, become a model inmate and grown spiritually. They said her death would cause further hardship for her children.
Georgia parole board’s posthumous pardon
For her last meal, she requested an extravagant one: two Burger King Whoppers with cheese (with everything), two large orders of fries, popcorn, cornbread, a side of buttermilk and a salad with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, carrots, cheese, boiled eggs and Paul Newman buttermilk dressing, the Corrections Department said. She also requested a glass of lemonade and cherry-vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Currently the only woman on Georgia’s death row, Gissendaner could be the second woman in the state’s history to be executed.
The first was Baker, an African-American maid who was sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury in 1944. She claimed self-defense for killing a man who held her against her will, threatened her life and appeared poised to hit her with a metal bar before she fired a fatal shot.
Sixty year after her execution, Georgia’s parole board posthumously pardoned her after finding that “it was a grievous error to deny (her) clemency.”
Such pardons are rare, but so are executions of women.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, only 15 women have been executed in the United States since 1977.