By Bob Allen
Update: Kelly Renee Gissendaner’s execution was postponed Monday night when officials cited problems with the drug that would be used for the lethal injection. Officials are waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to either grant or deny a stay requested by her lawyers.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders have joined hundreds of clergy seeking a last-minute reprieve for a Georgia woman scheduled to die by lethal injection. The woman inspired renowned theologians who met her through a prison program coordinated by a consortium of Atlanta theology schools including CBF-affiliated McAfee School of Theology.
About 500 faith leaders signed petitions delivered Monday morning to the Georgia State Capitol asking the governor and other leaders to intervene to save the life of Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 47, who was denied clemency Feb. 24 and scheduled to die the following day. Her execution was postponed due to weather and rescheduled for 7 p.m., Monday, March 2, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.
The clergy petition, signed by faith leaders including faculty members at McAfee, pastors of CBF congregations and staff of the CBF national headquarters in Decatur, Ga., sought commutation of Gissendaner’s death sentence to life without parole.
“Our various faith traditions and teachings hold that all life is sacred,” the letter said. “On the issue of the death penalty, we unanimously believe that fairness must be paramount. We also believe in the power of mercy.”
Numerous clergy and seminary professors have ministered to Gissendaner in prison through a theological certificate program offered by the Atlanta Theological Association.
The consortium — which includes Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary and Interdenominational Theological Center, as well as Mercer University’s McAfee — launched the prison program in 1998 as a “seminary behind the walls” for incarcerated women.
Gissendaner completed the program in December 2010 and was selected as student speaker at the graduation ceremony in October 2011. One of her electives was the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
Learning that Moltmann is still living and that her professor knew him, Gissendaner sent Moltmann a paper she had written on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi dissident executed in 1945 for allegedly taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Moltmann was impressed enough to write back. The two became pen pals, exchanging what the professor remembered as “20 or 30 letters” over a period of four years. When Moltmann came to Atlanta in October 2011 to lecture at Emory, he asked if he could visit Gissendaner in prison.
Moltmann, who served as a German soldier in World War II and afterward was a prisoner of war, talked with her about what it’s like to read the Bible in prison. Like Gissendaner, Moltmann became a Christian believer while in prison, and he also discovered writings including Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man that influenced the rest of his life.
Gissendaner’s clemency petition describes her as a different person than the self-centered and bitter woman who now accepts full responsibility for her role in her husband’s murder.
“I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned firsthand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy,” Gissendaner said. “I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I rely on the steadfast and never-ending love of God.”
Gissendaner entered prison with a tough and arrogant demeanor, the petition says, but with the help of chaplaincy staff and her pastoral counselor she confronted the awful truth about her actions and came to feel deep remorse demonstrated not only by word but also in deed.
Chaplain Susan Bishop, who first met Kelly in November 1998, described it as “a deep and sincere spiritual transformation.”
“Having been a chaplain in the prison setting for over 30 years, I have seen much ‘jailhouse religion,’” Bishop said. “The spiritual transformation and depth of faith that Ms. Gissendaner demonstrates and practices is a deep and sincere expression of a personal relationship with God. It is not a superficial religious experience.”
Prison officials and volunteers talk about the positive influence Gissendaner has on fellow inmates, including prevention of suicides both by ministering to women considering taking their lives and alerting officers about those she believes might be in danger of carrying out such a plan.
She is said to inspire fellow prisoners not by preaching at them but in leading by example and through encouragement. Her good works extend beyond the prison walls to participation in prison-prevention programs for at-risk youth.
Gissendaner was charged along with her lover Gregory Owen in the Feb. 7, 1997, murder of her husband, Doug. The theory at trial was that Gissendaner enlisted and directed Owen to kill her husband, which he did with a third accomplice that he recruited without her knowledge.
Both were offered identical plea bargains of life in prison with agreement not to seek parole for 25 years. Owen accepted the offer and testified against her at trial.
Gissendaner’s lawyer advised her to counter-offer the prosecutor by agreeing to plead guilty but not to wait 25 years before applying for parole.
The attorney later said he mistakenly thought that even if the jury believed the prosecution’s theory they would not impose the death penalty, because she did not physically commit the murder.
Georgia last executed a woman in 1945 and nobody other than an actual “trigger person” has been executed in the state since 1976. In hindsight he said he should have pushed her to accept the plea.
Owen, who marched Doug Gissendaner into the woods before beating him with a night stick and stabbing him to death, is eligible for parole in eight years.
At first Gissendaner’s three children were so angry at losing their father that they wanted nothing to do with her in prison. Gradually they reconciled, and two of the three were listed as witnesses on her clemency petition.
The family of Doug Gissendaner said in a statement they believe her death will help bring closure. The clergy letter acknowledged and sympathized with the profound grief of his parents and extended family but added “we also must attend to the ongoing grief of Kelly’s children who have already lost a father and who will experience immeasurable pain in losing another parent.”
“In solidarity with their pleas for their mother’s life, in keeping with the value of mercy, and in hope for the good works Kelly could perform during a sentence of life without parole, we ask that Kelly’s life be spared,” the letter said.
On Monday Gissendaner’s attorneys filed last-ditch efforts for a stay of execution contesting Georgia’s use of a non-FDA-approved drug for the lethal injection and a long-shot request asking the parole board to reconsider its rejection of clemency.
One member of the parole board, James Mills, is a graduate of Mercer University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary who served in the state legislature, where he succeeded in passing a law to add the words “In God we trust” on the state flag.
Gov. Nathan Deal earned his law degree from Mercer and is a member at First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., a CBF congregation led by Senior Pastor Bill Coates, the name at the top of the list of signers of the clergy petition.
More than 60,000 individuals signed an online petition asking Deal to use his power to stop Gissendaner’s execution. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, hundreds of death row inmates have been granted clemency for humanitarian reasons.
According to the ACLU, in 15 states the governor has full and sole authority to grant clemency, and in seven the governor must have a recommendation from a clemency board. Georgia is one of four states giving sole discretion to grant clemency to a board or advisory group.