Eighteen years after she conspired with her boyfriend to kill her husband, Kelly Gissendaner was put to death by lethal injection at 12:21 am on Wednesday. The execution, which had been delayed several times, took place hours after Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to grant her clemency and several emergency appeals to state and federal courts failed. She was the first woman to be executed in Georgia since 1945.
Gissendaner, who became deeply religious in prison and graduated from an inmate theology program, sang Amazing Grace before she was injected with the fatal drugs, witnesses told NBCNews.
In 1997, Gissendaner plotted to kill her husband Douglas, with the help of boyfriend Gregory Owen. Owen stabbed the victim in the neck and back, killing him. But after taking a plea deal and testifying against Gissendaner, he received a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 2022. Gissendaner, on the other hand, was sentenced to capital punishment for convincing her boyfriend to commit the crime.
Appeals on different questions of the case — from the legality of the drugs used to kill her to whether the death penalty should apply to people who are not physically involved in a murder to whether prison guards were discouraged from testifying on her behalf — wound their way through the courts on Tuesday night. Four sitting judges, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said they would have granted her a stay, but it was not enough.
The parole board previously denied Gissendaner’s request for clemency in February, but agreed to revisit the request at the urging of Gissendaner’s son, Brandon. The eleventh-hour decision to proceed with the execution was made after Gissendaner’s lawyers argued that a death sentence was too harsh of a sentence for someone who was not the actual “trigger-person,” or person who carried out the murder. She became the first “non-trigger” person the state has put to death since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
In their last-ditch effort to secure clemency, attorneys also pointed to Gissendaner’s string of good deeds behind bars. She fed and sang to scared juveniles. She steered fellow inmates towards rehabilitation. And she comforted several women on the brink of committing suicide. Prison guards who knew her also reportedly wanted to speak up in support.
Several people who were incarcerated with Gissendaner submitted stories to the board describing how she helped them through dark times:
The board’s verdict was handed down amid lingering concerns over the lethal injection drug pentobarbital, which was used to carry out the punishment. Gissendaner’s execution was postponed last March because the drug supplied by a compounding pharmacist, pentobarbital, appeared cloudy — raising questions about its effectiveness. A pharmacologist hired by the state later concluded that the temperature at which the drug was shipped and stored was likely responsible for producing the cloudy substance. However, tests on another batch of pentobarbital made by the same compounding pharmacist revealed that temperature may not have been the problem.
In the days leading up to the execution, Gissendaner’s lawyers argued it should be postponed because the cause of the cloudiness was never identified. The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument late Tuesday, as did the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gissendaner’s supporters view her death as yet another grave miscarriage of justice in the Peach State. Within the past few years, Georgia has carried out a number of controversial executions and found ways to obscure its capital punishment protocol.
In 2014, the state’s Supreme Court ruled by a 5-2 vote that officials could withhold information about where execution drugs come from — and who supplies them — from the public. The court effectively strengthened capital punishment in spite of criticisms of the state’s execution record.
Earlier this year, a former chief justice from Georgia, Norman Fletcher, said the death penalty is “morally indefensible” and called for its abolition. Twenty-five executions were carried out during his tenure on the state’s Supreme Court — many of which Fletcher voted to uphold. But Fletcher has since flipped on the issue, citing gross racial disparities in who is sentenced to die, as well as innocent lives that have been taken. “With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country.”
Georgia has executed people with severe intellectual disabilities, like Warren Hill, even though a landmark Supreme Court ruled that putting people with mental disabilities to death is unconstitutional. Black people in the state have been disproportionately sentenced to die. Georgia also incurred worldwide wrath in 2011 for executing Troy Davis, who was convicted of killing a police officer despite overwhelming evidence that he had no hand in the crime.
Leading up to Gissendaner’s execution, faith leaders (including Pope Francis), fellow inmates, and Gissendaner’s children pleaded for the state of Georgia to grant the death row inmate clemency, citing her personal transformation behind bars. Prisoners said Gissendaner was a role model and minister to them and was deserving of a commutation. Her kids said their father would not wish for Gissendaner to die for her crimes.
“He would not want the children he loved so much to endure the unspeakable pain that her execution would bring,” daughter Kayla Gissendaner said earlier this month. “She’s all we have left. My brothers and I lost one parent. I don’t know if I can lose another. I don’t know if I can handle that. It’s the most awful feeling to know they both should be gone.”