US executes woman despite Pope Francis plea

Georgia executes a woman for the first time in 70 years despite appeals from her children

Georgia executes Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on its death row, despite calls of clemency from the public and Pope Francis. Video: Reuters


Georgia executed the only woman on its death row on Wednesday, hours after the State Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected her final plea for clemency and turned down a plea from Pope Francis to spare her.

A Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman said the inmate, Kelly Renee Gissendaner, who was convicted of orchestrating her husband’s 1997 murder, died at a state prison in Jackson, southeast of Atlanta, early Wednesday. The Associated Press reported that she died at 12:21 a.m.

Gissendaner (47) was the fifth woman to be executed in the US in the past decade, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Two more executions are scheduled this week, including that of Richard Glossip, an Oklahoma prisoner. He is among the inmates who this year lost a US Supreme Court case that challenged the use of a particular sedative, midazolam, in executions.

Two of her three children, Dakota and Kayla, previously addressed the board. They released a video earlier this month pleading for their mother’s life to be spared.

In Georgia, Gissendaner was put to death after the federal courts refused to intercede and the state panel turned down an application for clemency that drew the support of Pope Francis. Visiting the United States last week, Francis had urged Congress to abolish the death penalty.

NBC news reported that she sang Amazing Grace in her final moments.

Gissendaner’s guilt in the death of her husband, Douglas, was uncontested, but her lawyers cited her “sincere remorse and acceptance of responsibility” in a filing this month to the pardons board. Her supporters argued, in part, that her “good works in prison” justified a commutation of her sentence to life imprisonment.

State officials and some members of Douglas Gissendaner’s family said her sentence was appropriate. “She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life,” Mr Gissendaner’s family said in a statement released by the district attorney‘s office in Gwinnett County, where the murder took place. “His life was not hers to take.”

Kelly Gissendaner’s lawyers also argued that her sentence was inappropriately severe because she was not present for her husband‘s murder and because Georgia had not executed a “non-trigger person” since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

The man who carried out the murder, Gregory Owen, Kelly Gissendaner’s boyfriend, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a plea agreement. Gissendaner, who rejected an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence with the eventual possibility of parole, was convicted in 1998.

Gissendaner later achieved some renown for her spiritual development during her incarceration, and the pope tried to intervene Tuesday. “While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been presented to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in a letter on Francis’ behalf.

Popes have sometimes asked US authorities to stop executions, as Pope John Paul II did in 2001 when he wrote to President George W. Bush to seek clemency for Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City.

Gissendaner’s legal argument recently focused on whether her postponed execution in March violated the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Then, Georgia’s corrections commissioner canceled the execution because of concerns about the state‘s supply of pentobarbital. Georgia officials suspended executions amid a review, and they later said that the pentobarbital had not been contaminated. Instead, they said it had precipitated, most likely because the drug was “shipped and stored at a temperature which was too low.”

After the postponement, Gissendaner’s lawyers argued that bumbling state officials had essentially forced Gissendaner to face “hours of unconstitutional torment and uncertainty - to which she had not been sentenced - while defendants dithered about whether they could execute her.“

That argument failed in several federal courts, including the US Supreme Court, which rejected Gissendaner‘s final appeal late Tuesday.