By Bob Allen
A member of a Cooperative Baptist Church in Atlanta says a murderess on Georgia’s death row sentenced to die tomorrow night is being judged for taking one life but not receiving mercy for saving others.
Nikki Roberts, a member of Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta who served 10 years at Metro State Prison for robbery, today is a “Struggle Sister,” a loose-knit collection of about 200 formerly incarcerated women who credit Kelly Gissendaner with giving them hope behind bars.
Roberts, 40, who over the summer taught in Park Avenue’s summer literacy program through the New Baptist Covenant, says in a video on a website urging clemency for the 47-year-old woman convicted of plotting her husband’s murder in 1997 that she first met Gissendaner after being dragged kicking and screaming to the prison’s lockdown unit while being placed on suicide watch.
“I made enough noise to awaken people miles away,” Roberts says in the three-minute video on the website #KellyOnMyMind. “Certainly the cell next to me was aware.”
“In that cell was Kelly Rene Gissendaner, who heard me screaming and wishing death upon myself,” she says. “I wanted to die. I had cut my wrists, and the forepart of my arm in fact had almost done damage to a vein.
“Kelly, not knowing me at the time, personally spoke to me through an air vent and said: ‘Stop giving up your power. Don’t give up your power. You will live. You are going to do great things. Don’t die. Don’t you dare say you want to die. Do you know these people will take you off the count and keep going?’”
Roberts, who in a devotional at Park Avenue in August attributed her sentence of 10 years without parole to “bad decisions” and phony friendships, says she later came to learn, after seeing death, “that it’s a reality, and in the system it’s a matter of numbers.”
Entering prison in 2004 without the possibility of parole, Roberts says “I was pretty much told, ‘I’ll see you in 2014.’”
“It seemed very dark, but Kelly stirred in me a new sight that allowed me to see that I had a worthiness,” she says. “I engaged myself in many different positive outlets and became a peer mentor in the same facility that I had been considered to be a disciplinary problem. In a place at and a time where I once had been hopeless, I had hope.”
Roberts says Gissendaner’s positive influence on women like her “should speak volumes” to corrections officials considering 11th-hour requests to commute her sentence from death to life without parole.
“You’re killing someone that’s a help,” Roberts says in the video. “You’re killing someone that gives hope. You’re killing someone that after 18 years has a rehabilitated mind. You’re killing someone who made peace with her children.”
“This is a family matter,” Roberts continues. “The law was broken but the victim was her children’s father. They didn’t forgive her at first, but they have come aboard in full restoration. They are begging the Board of Pardons and Paroles to allow their mother to live. She’s being judged for taking one life. But she’s not being granted mercy for giving so much life to others.”
On Monday a federal judge denied Gissendaner’s motions for a stay of execution and restraining order against the state to halt her death by lethal injection scheduled at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29.
Over the weekend former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher said he wishes he had dissented 15 years ago when the court ruled Gissendaner’s death sentence was proportional, even though her co-defendant was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole once he has served 25 years.
The family of the victim, Doug Gissendaner, released a statement saying while they believe the focus should be on their son and sibling, Kelly Gissendaner was sentenced to death based on the evidence presented to a jury of her peers.
“In the last 18 years, our mission has been to seek justice for Doug’s murder and to keep his memory alive,” the family said. “We have faith in our legal system and do believe that Kelly has been afforded every right that our legal system affords. 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. She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take.”
They said Doug Gissendaner “was a truly wonderful person” and a family man who “loved and sacrificed everything for the sake of his daughter and two stepsons.”
“For those of us that loved him, we will always feel great sorrow and indescribable pain at how he was so brutally taken from us, but also take comfort in knowing that he’s in heaven waiting for each and every one of us to rejoin him someday,” the statement said.
“We would like to thank our family, friends and other supporters for your continued prayers and words of comfort and support. We have been following online comments very closely and while we prefer to keep our privacy, know that we are truly thankful for your kind comments.
“To all who read this — we ask you to remember Doug and honor his memory by telling the ones you love how much you love them. He would love that. We pray that his memory will bring a smile to the faces of all that knew him and even those who didn’t.”
A rally in support of clemency for Kelly Gissendaner is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Georgia State Capitol. Students from McAfee School of Theology scheduled a prayer vigil on her behalf this afternoon on the Atlanta campus of Mercer University.