JACKSON, Ga. — Convicted murder conspirator Kelly Renee Gissendaner was put to death by lethal injection at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday, despite a flurry of last-ditch efforts to stay the execution.
Lawyers for the only woman on Georgia’s death row filed multiple appeals with high courts of both the United States and the state of Georgia. Gissendaner, 47 and a mother of three, was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday evening for her role in her husband’s 1997 murder.
Around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, a third appeal to the United State Supreme Court was denied, paving the way for the execution at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson to proceed.
Earlier Tuesday the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected a clemency bid by Gissendaner’s attorneys. Even Pope Francis weighed in with an 11th-hour appeal.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
reported Tuesday that the pope, back in Rome after a six-day visit to the United States, sent a letter through a representative, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Vigano wrote.
“In reaching its decision, the Board thoroughly reviewed all information and documents pertaining to the case, including the latest information presented by Gissendaner’s representatives,” a release sent from board chairman Terry Barnard said. No other explanation of the decision was given.
Later Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an application for stay of execution for Gissendaner.
Separately, a Fulton County judge denied a motion to halt the execution on grounds prison guards and administrators were not allowed to testify for clemency on Gissendaner’s behalf, according to The Journal-Constitution. The judge, however, allowed Gissendaner’s lawyers to appeal the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Gissendaner was the only woman on death row in Georgia and the first to be executed in the state in 70 years.
At a Tuesday morning hearing, Gissendaner’s attorneys presented arguments against her execution to Georgia’s parole board, saying the death penalty is disproportionate to the crime since Gissendaner was not the “trigger person” in her husband’s death. Georgia has not executed a so-called “non-trigger person” since 1976. The attorneys also presented numerous accounts from fellow prisoners testifying about Gissendaner’s positive influence in their lives and in the prison system.
The parole board is the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence in Georgia. Two of Gissendaner’s three children asked the board earlier this year to spare their mother’s life. The parole board’s decision to hold a new meeting came after her oldest child, Brandon, asked to address the board, said Susan Casey, an attorney for Gissendaner.
Gissendaner came close to execution twice this year. The first time, a February winter storm prevented travel. The second attempt in March was aborted when the lethal drug, pentobarbital, appeared cloudy. Officials first called a pharmacist, and then called off the execution “out of an abundance of caution.”
The parole board, the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence in Georgia, said in a news release that its members had thoroughly reviewed a second request from Gissendaner’s lawyers to reconsider a February decision denying clemency.
On Monday, a federal judge denied a request to stay Gissandaner’s execution. Gissendaner’s attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash to reconsider an earlier lawsuit declaring lethal injection as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. They argued in part that there’s a substantial risk of serious harm if the execution proceeds as planned because officials still can’t explain what went wrong with the execution drug in March.
Later Monday, Gissendaner’s attorneys appealed Thrash’s ruling denying the stay to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 slaying of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she conspired with her lover, Gregory Owen, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death. Owen, who took a plea deal and testified against Gissendaner, is serving life in prison and will become eligible for parole in 2022.
After the problem with the execution drug surfaced, Georgia corrections officials suspended executions until an analysis could be done.
In mid-April they released lab reports, a sworn statement from a pharmacological expert hired by the state and a short video showing a syringe of clear liquid with chunks of a white solid floating in the solution. Corrections officials said the expert concluded the chunks probably formed because the solution was shipped and stored at a temperature that was too low.
In a June court filing, the department revealed that it did its own test on a new batch of pentobarbital made by the same compounding pharmacist who made the drug meant for Gissendaner’s execution.
The Department of Corrections’ chief of special projects stored one sample in a refrigerator at 34 degrees and one in a room where the temperature fluctuated between 67 degrees and 72 degrees for 11 days, from March 24 to April 3. No changes were recorded in either sample. Both started and ended as clear liquid with no solids.
Without knowing what caused the earlier problem, Gissendaner attorney Gerald King said there’s no reason to think the drug won’t precipitate again Tuesday. The state plans to use the same compounding pharmacist and the same execution protocol and there’s no evidence additional safeguards have been put in place, King said.
The state has done everything it can to ensure that the problem won’t recur, and state officials would not proceed if a problem was detected, argued Sabrina Graham, a lawyer for the state.
Gissendaner’s lawyers have also released statements from high-profile figures, including former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher and former U.S. Congressman Bob Barr, arguing that Gissendaner shouldn’t be executed because her death sentence is disproportionate since Owen, who actually did the killing, got a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in seven years.
In a statement released through the Gwinnett County district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, Douglas Gissendaner’s family said he is the victim and that Kelly Gissendaner planned the murder and received a just punishment from a jury of her peers. On Monday, Doug Gissenaner’s family issued a statement urging people to focus on the victim in the hours leading up to the execution.
Contributing: The Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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