She was in her late 20s and caught in a love triangle with her husband and her boyfriend when, one chilly night in February 1997, she persuaded one to kill the other. That’s how Kelly Renee Gissendaner became Georgia’s first woman to face execution since World War II.
Prosecutors said she persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband while she was out dancing with girlfriends. She was convicted and sentenced to death — and is now Georgia’s only woman on death row.
Gissendaner, 46, is set to die by lethal injection Monday night, which would make her the country’s 16th woman executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Her execution date, which was postponed last week because of severe winter weather, was set after she spent all of her state and federal appeals.
A parole board denied her clemency request last week. Her attorneys argued it is wrong to execute her for her husband’s murder when the actual killer received a lesser sentence of life in prison. They also said she has found faith over the years, becoming a model inmate and earning a theology degree behind bars. But it seems her efforts have come too late.
“I have found her very sensitive, and not a monster, as the newspapers depicted her. And very intelligent,” German theologian Jurgen Moltmann told the New York Times. “She has changed her mind, and her life.”
Gissendaner had a complicated on-again, off-again relationship with her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. The two married in 1989, separated and then divorced in 1993. Two years later, they started dating again, remarried, separated, started seeing each other again and then bought a home together in 1996, according to Georgia’s attorney general. But, later that year, Gissendaner told co-workers she was in love with another man, Gregory Owen.
Owen wanted Gissendaner to divorce her husband but she said a divorce would not keep Douglas away from her, according to court documents. So, prosecutors said, the two plotted to murder Douglas Gissendaner, 43.
On Feb. 7, 1997, Kelly Gissendaner went dancing with three girlfriends. Her husband was at a friend’s house working on cars. And her boyfriend was waiting in their home with a nightstick and a hunting knife. When Douglas Gissendaner returned to the house, Owen approached him from behind, held a knife to his throat and forced him into a car, according to court documents.
Owen told Douglas Gissendaner to drive down a deserted road in rural Georgia. Then he made the victim walk into the woods and kneel down. Owen, according to court documents, hit him over the head with with the nightstick and stabbed him in the neck up to 10 times. Owen stole Douglas Gissendaner’s watch and wedding rings to make the murder look like a robbery.
After Kelly Gissendaner arrived at the scene, Owen drove to get some kerosene that Gissendaner had left for him and set Douglas Gissendaner’s car ablaze.
Kelly Gissendaner was charged the next year and sentenced to death.
But it’s the discrepancy between Gissendaner and Owen’s sentences that she and her attorneys question.
Before the murder trial, both Gissendaner and Owen were offered the same plea — life in prison as long as they didn’t seek parole for 25 years. Owen accepted the deal and testified against Gissendaner at trial, CNN reported. But Gissendaner wanted a different deal — one without the parole stipulation.
“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 trial attorney, Edwin Wilson, told CNN. He said he didn’t think she would get the death penalty because she didn’t actually kill her husband and because “she was a woman.”
In the past century, only 40 woman have been executed — 15 after 1976. The last woman to be executed in Georgia was Lena Baker, an African American maid who was convicted in one day by an all-white jury for killing her boss, who was also white. She told the court her boss, Ernest Knight, had held her at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her if she tried to leave, so she shot him in self-defense. She was sent to the electric chair in 1945, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2005, she was pardoned.
Gissendaner began studying theology through a prison program led by local divinity schools such as Emory University. A former guard called her a comfort to women in the prison who were suicidal or mentally challenged, the New York Times reported.
“The other inmates could see when inmates were being escorted across the yard with cut-up or bandaged arms from attempted suicides, and would yell to Kelly about it,” former guard Marian Williams said, according to the newspaper. “Kelly could talk to those ladies and offer them some sort of hope and peace.”
Susan Bishop, a chaplain who has known Gissendaner since 1998, said that Gissendaner was not just another case of “jailhouse religion.”
“It is not a superficial religious experience,” she said, according to the New York Times.
Gissendaner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014, but her request was denied.
In the clemency petition, Gissendaner apologized to her children and the rest of the Gissendaner family.
“There are no excuses for what I did. I am fully responsible for my role in my husband’s murder,” she said. “I had become so self-centered and bitter about my life and who I had become, that I lost all judgment.”
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