The only woman on Georgia’s death row was executed by lethal injection early Wednesday morning following a series of legal challenges that delayed her execution by several hours.
Kelly Gissendaner, who was convicted of convincing her boyfriend to murder her husband, was the first woman executed in Georgia since World War II. Her execution was announced by corrections officials shortly before 12:30 a.m. local time.
Georgia had intended to execute Gissendaner earlier this year, but its two planned attempts were scrapped — one due to bad weather, the other after the execution drugs looked “cloudy” — and her execution was postponed until this week.
On Tuesday afternoon, despite an appeal from Pope Francis, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied without explanation Gissendaner’s request for them to reconsider her case.
Her execution had been set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday night, but that time came and went with appeals still pending, pushing her execution back as she continued to file stay requests.
Shortly before 8:30 p.m., the U.S. Supreme Court said it had denied a request to stay her execution. The justices offered no explanation for the denial, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she would have stayed the execution. The Supreme Court also rejected a second stay request shortly before 10:45 p.m., and Gissendaner’s attorneys quickly filed a third request for a stay, which was rejected at about 11:30 p.m.
The pope, who called for an end to the death penalty during his visit to the United States last week, on Tuesday asked the parole board to spare her life.
A letter was sent from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano on the pope’s behalf asking the board to commute her death sentence. Vigano wrote that the pope was imploring the board “to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy.”
Gissenaner’s case had drawn opposition from religious groups and criticisms over the fact that she is being sentenced to death for a crime she did not personally carry out. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1998 for convincing her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, to kill her husband, Douglas, according to a summary of the case provided by Sam Olens, Georgia’s attorney general.
While Gissendaner was sentenced to die at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, which is about 45 minutes south of Atlanta, Owen was sentenced to life in prison. As part of her new clemency plea, which the Georgia parole board said it received last week, Gissendaner argued against this gap in the sentences she and Owen faced.
Gissendaner had also asked a federal appeals court to stay her execution, arguing that the incident with the “cloudy” drugs — which caused her execution to be delayed for hours before it was eventually canceled — was unconstitutional. In addition, she argued that the latest planned execution would also be unconstitutional, as it would use the same drugs.
On Tuesday night, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rejected her appeals and said it did not agree with her contention that her execution would violate the Constitution. In its opinion, the appeals court said Georgia’s cancellation of the execution with questionable drugs instead showed that corrections officials “were cautious and took steps to avoid a substantial risk of serious harm.”
Not long after the Supreme Court denied Gissendaner’s earlier appeal, her attorneys asked the justices to review the 11th Circuit’s opinion. The justices denied that stay request shortly before 10:45 p.m. and no justices recorded dissents.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Supreme Court denied a request from Gissendaner for a stay on Tuesday night; two justices dissented from that decision.
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Gissendaner’s second stay request, her attorneys filed a third request for a stay, this one focusing on the Georgia Supreme Court decision.
In particular, the request asked whether the Constitution prohibits the execution of someone who did not actually carry out the murder for which they were sentenced. “A death sentence is no longer a constitutionally acceptable societal response to Kelly Gissendaner’s criminal conduct,” her attorneys wrote in this third stay request. The request was rejected at about 11:30 p.m. with no recorded dissents, and after that there did not appear to be any remaining legal challenges for Gissendaner to mount.
One of the execution witnesses told local reporters that before she was executed, Gissendaner apologized for what she had done. The witness also said that when the execution began, Gissendaner began to sing “Amazing Grace” and “sang it all the way through.”
She was the 21st person executed in the United States so far this year. Gissenander was one of six inmates set to be executed over a nine-day period, and like some of these other inmates, she has narrowly avoided being executed already this year.
Her first scheduled lethal injection earlier this year was postponed due to a winter storm, while the second was delayed and eventually canceled because corrections officials said the lethal injection drugs appeared “cloudy.”
Georgia indefinitely postponed its executions while it examined the drugs, eventually declaring that the drugs were likely too cold. Earlier this month, officials announced that they had set her new execution date for Tuesday night.
In her clemency request, Gissendaner’s attorneys argued that her spiritual changes and outreach in prison have been “life changing” for other inmates. The request included statements from other inmates discussing the work she has done to help them, including comments from those who say they would not have made it out of prison without her.
As Gissendaner’s case has drawn the attention of theologians and religious leaders, they have asked the state to halt the execution and pointed to Gissendaner’s work completing a theology studies program while in prison.
Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, who has called on Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) to halt all executions, signed a letter asking authorities to commute Gissendaner’s death sentence and change her punishment to life in prison without parole. The letter argued that Gissendaner has “experienced a profound spiritual transformation” during her time behind bars.
In Georgia, only the parole board can commute a death sentence or change it to life in prison or life without parole. The board that denied her request for a stay Tuesday had also denied her clemency requests earlier this year.
Executions of women are rare in this country, as just a fraction of the people sitting on death row are female, according to Justice Department figures.
Georgia had not executed a female inmate since Lena Baker became the only woman put to death on the state’s electric chair on March 5, 1945.
Baker, a black maid who was put to death for killing a white man, had said that she shot him in self-defense. She was found guilty by a jury of a dozen white men — “hardly a jury of her peers,” as Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) put it in 2011 when he posthumously honored her in the congressional record.
The Georgia parole board posthumously pardoned Baker in 2005, six decades after she was executed, declaring in its annual report that “it was a grievous error to deny clemency” to Baker.
This post has been updated repeatedly. First published: Tuesday at 2:33 p.m.