Georgia Mom Executed After Last-Minute Appeals Fail

Update: After hours of delay and frantic, last-minute appeals, the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner early Wednesday morning. She was 47. In her final statement, the mother of three apologized to her husband who she's convicted of having killed. According to reports in her local paper, she sang "Amazing Grace" as she was being put to death by lethal injection.

This story was updated on September 30, 2015.

Kelly Gissendaner is going to be executed this evening at 7 p.m. At that time, Gissendaner will become the first woman to receive the death penalty in Georgia in 70 years. She is the only woman on death row in the entire state.

All three of Gissendaner's children, 90,000 people, and Pope Francis pleaded with Georgia to commute Gissendaner's death sentence to one of life in prison. Around 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles decided not to grant Gissendaner clemency.
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Hedgis.
Kelly and Rev. Sarah Hedgis at Kelly's graduation from the theology certificate program in 2011.
Gissendaner and her lover — a man named Gregory Owen — conspired 18 years ago to murder her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Tonight, Gissendaner will sit down to a last meal of her choosing. Then, she will be injected with a lethal combination of chemicals, and she will die.

In the time between her husband's murder and Gissendaner's execution, a lot has happened. Gissendaner went to prison. She worked hard to earn the respect of her fellow inmates and the prison guards. She earned a college degree. And most critically, she forged a path she believed might prove redemptive — making friends, and reinvigorating her relationship with her children along the way.

The Reverend Sarah Hedgis met Gissendaner when they were both still theology students. As a seminarian at Emory Candler School of Theology, Hedgis was one of Gissendaner's teachers.

In the moments before and after the Board decided to green light the execution, Hedgis spoke to us about Gissendaner, who, for better or for worse, she called "the best kind of student and teacher.

How do you feel now that this tragic decision has been made?
SH: "This is devastating news for us. In every way, Kelly's story is one of transformation and new possibility. It should be a story that the State of Georgia Department of Corrections wants to proclaim and continue. Instead, it is a story and a life that the Board of Pardons and Paroles believes should end."

What is your relationship with Kelly?
SH: "She was my student, and then went on to become a dear friend."

What was she like as a student?
SH: "Kelly was terribly committed to the coursework. She just ate, slept, and breathed theology. But she was also really generous and giving in the class, not only sharing her ideas with a lot of enthusiasm, but creating space for people to access the things that we were talking about based on their own experience. She acted like the best kind of student and teacher."
Did you ever discuss with her the possibility that this day might come?
SH: "We talked a lot, both in their larger classroom context, of what it means to discuss theology as women, and as women who are incarcerated. Really naturally, there was this honoring of lived experience as women. But we also talked one-on-one.

"Kelly and those who know her talk a lot about hope. I think hope is often seen as either this really easy thing — we use hope as 'I hope that I don't miss the bus,' or 'I hope this restaurant has the sandwich I like' — or we think about it as being unrealistically optimistic, like a lightning bolt will come out of the sky, and that will be how clemency is granted.

"But Kelly, both in the classroom and one-on-one, practices hope as this deep belief in promises of God... but also promises of community — that communities can be healed, and can be reconciled, and can know wholeness.

"Kelly, as she went through the appeals process, and then as she went through the two scheduled executions from earlier this year, always practiced this sense of hope, this deep belief that death for death is a compromised image of what life should be like together. She truly believed that we can work toward a community, a way of living that's not rooted in that sense of justice."

What did Kelly believe was the right way to reconcile what had happened?
SH: "There wasn't just one thing to do. That was something that I've always admired about Kelly. It wasn't like, to use colloquial language, 'I need to get right with God.'

"Kelly practiced confession and asking for forgiveness with all different kinds of people in her life. One of the practices was to follow the rules of the prison where she worked. Now she is deeply admired and respected by the guards who she's come into contact with. It was to practice forgiveness, and trust, and hope on the other inmates around her, even when they were at their lowest or their angriest or their saddest point.

"I think one of the greatest acts or reconciliation for Kelly was to reunite with her children. All three of her children have spoken out, asking for the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Kelly clemency."

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Do you truly believe that someone who commits a crime like the one Kelly committed can change?
SH: "I think anyone is capable of change if they are open and willing to do the hard work of change. Kelly will be the first to tell you that it is hard and scary work to see the person that you are, and know it's not who you want to be — as a mother, as a friend, as a Christian — and then to do the hard work of reconciling those relationships."

What do you think could convince the Board to grant clemency?
SH: "I think that hearing about Kelly's story, and the transformation that she's experienced, aligns directly with the Board's charge in conjunction with the Department of Corrections to meet people in their lowest moments, who've been defined by their worst act, and to believe in the possibility that correction and rehabilitation is possible."

What do you say to the people who say that it's worse to spend a lifetime in prison than it is to have your life taken?
SH: "As a prison advocate beyond what's going on with Kelly, I definitely think that there is a huge need for prison reform in the United States; however, within this context, Kelly has plead for life in prison over being executed, and that's the voice that I'm trying to speak through."

Do you think that women's ability to be uniquely compassionate is at all a factor in their ability to change, like the way Kelly has?
SH: "I think women's ability to be compassionate is a gift to be celebrated and spread, which is a huge thing that Kelly has done. She's not only showed compassion to people, but instilled it in others.

"I definitely don't think it limits a person's ability to change if they're not a woman. Kelly is the only woman on death row here in Georgia. There are a lot of other men here in Georgia on death row. I deeply believe all of them are capable of transforming who they were into a better version of themselves."

What about Kelly and her story do you think is the most important thing for other women, and specifically, young women, to need to learn or know?
SH: "What touches me most about Kelly's story, especially as someone who met her when I was a young woman, was that your community can restore life for you. Kelly's community — through the theology program, through her pastor, through her friends — showed her that she was worth trying to change. I think a lot of women, especially young women, struggle with a sense of worth. And Kelly's story shows that each person deserves to be cared for, and deserves the space to try and change, and grow."

Do you ever receive criticism for advocating for people like Kelly?
SH: "I'm an activist for some other things and Kelly's story is by far the easiest one to tell and convey across all types of spectrums."

"I mean that my brother is a member of a fraternity at a Southern university, and he penned his own letter to [Georgia] Governor Nathan Deal. That's a very specific type of person, all the way across to some of my more leftist, progressive, women friends. I've never told Kelly's story to anyone who couldn't relate to her, and I think, more importantly, relate to her desire to change and transform, and want to be a part of that with her."

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