JACKSON, Ga. — The only woman on Georgia’s death row was executed early Wednesday morning, making her the first woman put to death by the state in seven decades.
Kelly Renee Gissendaner was pronounced dead by injection of pentobarbital at 12:21 a.m. at the state prison in Jackson. She was convicted of murder in the February 1997 slaying of her husband after she conspired with her lover, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death.
Kelly Gissendaner, 47, sobbed as she said she loved her children and apologized to Douglas Gissendaner’s family, saying she hopes they can find some peace and happiness. She also addressed her lawyer, Susan Casey, who was among the witnesses.
“I just want to say God bless you all and I love you, Susan. You let my kids know I went out singing ‘Amazing Grace,”‘ Gissendaner said.
Prison Warden Bruce Chatman left the execution chamber at 12:11 a.m. Records from previous executions indicate that the lethal drug is administered within about a minute of the warden leaving the room.
Gissendaner sang “Amazing Grace” and also appeared to sing another song before taking several deep breaths and then becoming still.
More than 100 people gathered in rainy conditions outside the prison to support Gissendaner. Among them was Rev. Della Bacote, who said she is a chaplain at Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville and who spent several hours with Gissendaner on Tuesday afternoon, talking and praying.
“She was at peace with whatever was to come,” Bacote said.
Gissendaner’s three children visited with her Monday but weren’t able to see her Tuesday because they were testifying before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, Bacote said. The parole board is the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence in Georgia.
“Kelly embraced that the children were going to talk to the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” Bacote said, adding that Gissendaner was able to speak to her children by phone Tuesday.
Two of Gissendaner’s three children had previously addressed the board and also put out a video earlier this month pleading for their mother’s life and talking about their own difficult path to forgiveness. Her oldest son had not previously addressed the board.
Various courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court denied multiple last-ditch efforts to stop her execution Tuesday, and the parole board stood by its February decision to deny clemency. The board didn’t give a reason for the denial, but said it had carefully considered her request for reconsideration.
Gissendaner was previously scheduled for execution Feb. 25, but that was delayed because of a threat of winter weather. Her execution was reset for March 2, but corrections officials postponed that execution “out of an abundance of caution” because the execution drug appeared “cloudy.”
Pope Francis’ diplomatic representative in the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, on Tuesday sent a letter to the parole board on behalf of the pontiff asking for a commutation of Gissendaner’s sentence “to one that would better express both justice and mercy.” He cited an address the pope made to a joint session of Congress last week in which he called for the abolition of the death penalty.
Gissendaner’s lawyers submitted a statement from former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher to the parole board. Fletcher argued Gissendaner’s death sentence was not proportionate to her role in the crime. Her lover, Gregory Owen, who did the killing, is serving a life prison sentence and will become eligible for parole in 2022. He also noted that Georgia hadn’t executed a person who didn’t actually carry out a killing since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Gissendaner’s lawyers also said she was a seriously damaged woman who has undergone a spiritual transformation in prison and has been a model prisoner who has shown remorse and provided hope to other inmates in their personal struggles. They gave the parole board testimonials from several women who were locked up as teens and who said Gissendaner counselled them through moments when they felt scared, lost or on the verge of giving up hope.
Douglas Gissendaner’s family said in a statement Monday that he is the victim and that Kelly Gissendaner received an appropriate sentence.
“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,” the statement says. “She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life.”
Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors have said. Acting on her instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at Gissendaner’s home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said.
Investigators looking into the killing zeroed in on Owen once they learned of his affair with Kelly Gissendaner. He initially denied involvement but eventually confessed and implicated Kelly Gissendaner.