Georgia Sets Execution of Only Woman on State’s Death Row; Children Plead for Stay

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Pleas from Kelly Gissendaner’s children and a last-minute letter on behalf of the Pope didn’t sway the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole Tuesday.

In a news release, the panel said it had denied clemency for the 47-year-old death row inmate, who was convicted of murder for convincing her lover to kill her husband in 1997.

She’s scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 47, was convicted in a February 1997 murder plot that targeted her husband in suburban Atlanta. (Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections)

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 47, was convicted in a February 1997 murder plot that targeted her husband in suburban Atlanta. (Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections)

Her attorneys say they’re still working on several appeals. If executed, Gissendaner will be the state’s first female convict to be executed in 70 years.

Attorney Susan Casey, who was driving to the prison to be at her client’s execution, said Gissendaner’s children are “heartbroken.”

“We asked the board for an additional 24 hours so they could visit their mother,” she said. “That was refused.”

The board, which had the option of commuting her sentence to life in prison, met for hours Tuesday and heard from her oldest son, Brandon Brookshire. Her other children, Kayla and Dakota, were present and have previously spoken out in support of their mother.

The hearing was closed to media. It was only the board members, attorneys and the children present. While awaiting an answer from the board, a representative for Pope Francis sent a letter saying that his Holiness 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.

It wasn’t clear whether the board saw the Vatican representative’s letter. A spokesman for the board declined to comment, saying what happens inside the hearings is private.

This isn’t the only U.S. case on which Pope Francis — who called for an end to the death penalty when he spoke in Congress last week — has commented. His representative has also sent a letter to Oklahoma’s governor, asking her to commute the death sentence for Richard Glossip, who’s scheduled to be executed there Wednesday.

Husband’s family: He’s the victim

No matter what happens, the family of Gissendaner’s slain husband, Douglas, has said the focus should be on him, not her.

In a statement, they said they had faith in the 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 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.”

But Kelly Gissendaner’s children have pleaded with authorities to show mercy.

“My dad would not want my mom to be executed, even knowing her role in his murder,” Kayla Gissendaner said in a statement earlier. “He would not want us to endure another devastating loss.”

The daughter has said her mother has changed over the past 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.”

More than 90,000 people have signed a petition urging Gov. Nathan Deal to halt her execution, claiming the mother of three has turned her life around and calling her 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 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.”

Execution postponed twice

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 in Georgia was executed by electric chair in 1945.

Officials had previously set a date for Gissendaner’s execution, but called it off in February due to inclement weather. A few days later, 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 and 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.

Last year, Oklahoma issued a moratorium on executions after murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett convulsed, writhed and lay alive on a gurney for 43 minutes before dying. It was the state’s first time using a new, three-drug cocktail for an execution.

Several appeals in the case are ongoing.

One pending before the U.S. Supreme Court argues argues that Gissendaner’s behavior in prison was paramount to her clemency proceedings, but that members of the pardons board never heard from any prison employees. The suit alleges Gissendaner was deprived of due process after the warden at Lee Arrendale Prison, Kathleen Kennedy, distributed a memo instructing her staff at the facility nearly 75 miles northeast of Atlanta not to speak to “anyone” about Gissendaner.

Her lawyers have also filed a challenge arguing that Gissendaner’s sentence was “disproportionate” compared to that of her co-defendant. Gissendaner arranged to have her husband killed by Greg Owen, who stabbed Doug Gissander in the neck and back. Owen testified against Kelly Gissendaner as part of a plea bargain that got him a life sentence instead of death.

‘I hope they can find healing’

On Tuesday, as the board weighed its decision, the Rev. Cathy Zappa appeared on CNN.

Zappa has counseled Gissendaner.

When Gissendaner was threatened with execution previously, the inmate “faced her fate with grace,” the reverend said.

CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield asked Zappa what her “words of comfort” would be to the family of Doug Gissendaner.

“That’s a really hard question because I’m aware of how hard this has been” for them, Zappa answered.

“I don’t know if they’d want words of comfort from me,” she said. “I pray for him. I pray for them. I hope they can find healing. If this execution doesn’t happen, I hope they find healing and closure some way and I believe it’s possible.”