Unmoved by children's, pope's pleas, Georgia executes first woman in 70 years

Georgia corrections officials executed the state's only female death row inmate, Kelly Gissendaner, early Wednesday morning for encouraging her boyfriend to kill her husband.

Tami Chappell/Reuters
Supporters of Kelly Gissendaner hold signs with an image and quote from Pope Francis as they wait for the execution of Gissendaner at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga., Tuesday. Georgia's parole board denied a request for clemency by Ms. Gissendaner, the lone woman on the state's death row, just hours before her scheduled execution for her role in her husband's murder. Board members also did not appear moved by a letter sent by an archbishop on behalf of Pope Francis urging them to commute the inmate's death sentence.

Kelly Gissendaner died by lethal injection at 12:21 a.m. in Jackson, Ga., making it the first time in 70 years that the state has carried out the death penalty on a woman.

Ms. Gissendaner was sentenced to death in 1997 after being convicted for what is known as malice murder in the state of Georgia. Gissendaner reportedly encouraged her boyfriend at the time to kill her husband Douglas Gissendaner, instead of simply divorcing Douglas as then-boyfriend Gregory Owen suggested, prosecutors have said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner’s instructions, Mr. Owen forced Douglas to drive to a remote area before stabbing him to death.

Supporters of Gissendaner, including her lawyer Susan Casey, her three children, and former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher argued that the death sentence was not proportionate to her role in the crime.

The man who actually committed the kidnapping and killing, Owen, received a life sentence and he is eligible for parole in 2022. And since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Georgia hadn’t executed a person who didn’t actually carry out a killing, Justice Fletcher noted.

Gissendaner’s lawyers argued that Kelly had undergone a spiritual transformation in prision and had been a model prisoner, counseling other inmates who felt scared or lost. 

Various courts, including the US Supreme Court denied efforts Tuesday to stop her execution. The parole board stood by their February decision to deny clemency, even after Pope Francis urged officials to commute her death sentence. US Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó sent a letter to the parole board Tuesday, asking for a commutation of Gissendaner’s sentence “to one that would better express justice and mercy.”

But the family of Doug Gissendaner said Kelly Gissendaner got the sentence she deserved.

“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,” Doug’s family said in a statement. “She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life.”

Gissendaner’s execution had previously been scheduled two different times. The execution was called off on Feb. 25 because of bad weather conditions, and again on March 2 “out of abundance of caution” when officials believed there was a problem with the injection drug.

She was the 16th woman to be executed in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.  

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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