By Bob Allen
Georgia faith leaders including former Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal gathered Sept. 23 outside the office of the Board of Pardons and Paroles protesting the newly rescheduled execution of the only woman on Georgia’s death role.
“There’s no good for anybody — for her, for the state, for public welfare,” Vestal, director of the Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership at McAfee School of Theology and interim pastor of Atlanta’s Peachtree Baptist Church, commented to WSB-TV Channel 2 in Atlanta about plans to execute convicted murderer Kelly Gissendaner at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29.
Gissendaner, found guilty by a jury of plotting her husband’s 1997 murder, was previously scheduled to die March 2, but the execution was postponed due to concerns about the appearance of one of the drugs about to be administered for lethal injection. The state later said the sedative appeared cloudy because of the temperature at which it was stored, but is OK to use and will work fine.
The issuing of a new death warrant has renewed a campaign led by faith leaders called Kelly on My Mind asking that Gissendaner’s death sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole.
In March the group drew attention to Gissendaner’s changed life, including graduation from a prison theology program sponsored by a consortium including Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and the unlikely personal friendship she developed through that experience with German theologian Jürgen Moltmann.
New material includes video of two of Gissendaner’s three children pleading for their mother’s life and testimonies from ex-convicts about how she helped other women get through prison when they were contemplating suicide.
The Kelly on My Mind website invites daily prayer for everyone involved in the case, including family members of Doug Gissendaner, the murder victim, who have pledged to “continue fighting for Doug until he gets the justice he deserves no matter how long it takes.”
“While in prison, Kelly has been a pastoral presence to many, teaching, preaching and living a life of purpose,” the website says. “Her life is an extraordinary example of the rehabilitation that the corrections system aims to produce. Kelly is a living testimony to the possibility of change and the power of hope.”
In addition to prayer, Kelly on My Mind asks supporters to act by signing a petition, calling the governor, posting on social media, organizing a vigil or attending a public event.
“As people of faith, we hold that all life is sacred,” the website says. “We believe in mercy. With tens of thousands of people of faith from across Georgia and around the world, we ask that Kelly’s life be spared.”
“This execution does not reflect God’s justice, love or grace,” her advocates insist. “It does not reflect the will of the people of Georgia. We stand with Kelly’s children in asking that her life be spared.”
Gissendaner was sentenced to death on Nov. 20, 1998. Her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, testified against her as part of a plea bargain that landed him a life sentence but spared him from the death penalty. She turned down a similar offer, after her attorney advised that because she is a woman and wasn’t present when the crime was committed the worst that could come from going to trial would be life in prison.
Gissendaner would be the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945. The last, Lena Baker, was an African-American maid sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male, small-town jury despite claims of self-defense and abuse by her white employer. Sixty years later the state granted her a pardon posthumously.
The Georgia Department of Corrections announced Sept. 21 that Gissendaner is scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga. She was originally scheduled to die in February, but due to a winter storm her intended execution was postponed until March.