Kelly Gissendaner had people on her side, from candle-light wielding passive protesters to the Pope, himself. That didn’t stop the State of Georgia from executing the woman via lethal injection on the morning of September 30, 2015, though. It’s an action that’s been met with mixed reactions across the state and across the country. The first Georgia female prisoner to be executed in 70 years, many are calling the death unfair and unjust, even as Kelly admitted to her crimes. So just what exactly makes this case so divided, and why was Atlanta willing to move forward in the face of such protest?
A more complete summary of the matter at hand can be found here, but the pertinent facts are this. Gissendaner was convicted in 1998 after enlisting her boyfriend from an extramarital affair to kill her husband for life insurance money. The boyfriend carried out the actual murder, stabbing the husband in the throat 8 to 10 times, while Kelly composed the actual murder plot, going so far as to plan date and time to ensure she had an alibi.
Owen is currently serving a life sentence but is up for parole in eight years. Gissendaner was sentenced to death.
Georgia is a state that hasn’t historically been shy about enacting the death penalty, and even with national public opinion on capital punishment turning ever against it, the conservatively governed state has maintained and gone as far as to challenge current laws, trying to make them more broad. So why are so many against Gissendaner’s death, specifically?
The argument seems to come down largely to two components. The first is that she’s a changed woman. The second is that she shouldn’t be the one executed when she wasn’t the one who did the physical stabbing.
The issue of redemption is a difficult one. Multiple guards were willing to attest to the fact that Gissendaner appeared to be a changed woman, going on to complete a theology studies program, and gained notoriety for her one-woman ministry within the prison system. As far as good behavior was concerned, that was certainly in place, but clemency often requires more than that. Factors that go into granting clemency operate on an “AND” basis, rather than an “OR.” Gissendaner was a good citizen behind bars, but she was not a non-violent or low level offender, which is another major factor. She confessed to plotting the murder of her husband for personal gain, and that confession put her squarely in the realm of a violent criminal.
The argument that she wasn’t the actual murderer is a bit more clear-cut, though no less contended. The boyfriend, who did the actual killing, received a life sentence, which has many wondering why he got off easier when she didn’t physically take the life. The short answer is that Gissendaner simply picked poorly. She and her boyfriend were both offered the same plea bargain that would have guaranteed Gissendaner the same life sentence the boyfriend is currently serving. Gissendaner’s legal team advised her not to take it, thinking a jury would be unlikely to convict her to death.
The State didn’t stop the execution, despite these arguments, which has put Atlanta at odds with many Georgians who believe that Gissendaner’s technically clean hands and good behavior should have counted for something.
Whether capital punishment is right or wrong is an entirely separate matter – one fully worth discussing but an argument that will not change the fact that Georgia was legally set up to allow such at the time of Gissendaner’s death. The state was operating in the confines of the law, and the sentence was carried out on a person who, at one point in her life, saw fit to take the life of another for personal monetary gain. She confessed to her crime, and refused the plea bargain that could have spared her life.
Atlanta’s decision to continue with the execution is certainly not popular, but it’s completely within the State’s rights, and that is where real attention needs to turn. The ethos of executions like that of Gissendaner won’t matter as long as the logos is supported by law. Whether it should or shouldn’t be is something for those who support Gissendaner’s cause to consider and fight for as they see necessary. Until that mantle is taken up, the unpopular decision can remain the legally correct decision.