Mar 2, 2015 5:30 PM

Georgia woman nears execution for husband's murder

The Associated Press

JACKSON, Ga. (AP) The only woman on Georgia's death row will become the first female to be executed in 70 years in the state Monday unless the U.S. Supreme Court or the state parole board steps in with a last-minute reprieve.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, is scheduled to die by injection of pentobarbital at 7 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson for the February 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner.

The courts found she plotted the stabbing death of her husband by her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, who will be up for parole in eight years after accepting a life sentence and testifying against her.

Gissendaner would be only the 16th woman put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976. About 1,400 men have been executed since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence, denied clemency last week, but her lawyers urged them Monday to reconsider and "bestow mercy" by commuting her sentence to life without parole.

Also still pending is a response from the Supreme Court after an appellate court rejected her lawyers' request for a delay on the grounds that Georgia's lethal injection procedures aren't transparent enough to be challenged in court.

Kelly and Douglas Gissendaner had a troubled relationship, repeatedly splitting up and getting back together, divorcing and remarrying. She was a 28-year-old mother of three children, 12, 7 and 5 years old. And she had an on-again, off-again lover in Owen.

In prison, Gissendaner eventually took responsibility: Rather than divorcing her husband again, she pushed Owen to kill him. Acting on her instructions, Owen ambushed her husband while she went out dancing with friends, and forced him to drive to a remote area. Then he marched him into the woods and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said.

Owen and Gissendaner then met up and set fire to the dead man's car in an attempted cover-up, and both initially denied involvement, but Owen eventually confessed and testified against his former girlfriend.

Her lawyers challenged the constitutionality of her sentence as disproportionate, given that she wasn't there when Owen killed her husband, and yet Owen will eventually be eligible for parole. But Georgia's Supreme Court voted 5-2 Monday to deny her motion, citing Owen's testimony that she pushed for murder rather than divorce so that she could get her husband's insurance money.

In their request Monday for reconsideration, Gissendaner's lawyers said the parole board did not have a chance to hear the overwhelmingly positive testimony of many corrections employees who declined to speak up for fear of retaliation.

Her clemency petition already included testimonials from dozens of spiritual advisers, inmates and prison staff who described a seriously damaged woman transformed through faith behind bars. She has shown remorse and provided hope to struggling inmates while helping guards maintain control, they 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," Prison chaplain Susan Bishop wrote. "It is not a superficial religious experience."

Two of Gissendaner's three children also asked the board to spare their mother's life, describing their own emotional journey from anger and bitterness to forgiveness.

"The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can't fathom losing another parent," wrote her daughter, Kayla Gissendaner. "My mom has touched so many lives. Executing her doesn't bring justice or peace to me or to anyone. It will only bring more pain and destruction."

But it also has been "a long, hard, heartbreaking road" for Douglas Gissendaner's parents and sister, and they have made it clear they want the execution to go forward, the Gwinnett County district attorney's office said.

More than a dozen women who served time with Gissendaner gathered outside the prison to support her Monday afternoon.

Kara Tragesser recalled Gissendaner telling her "you can do better!" when she was put on lockdown while serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.

"We're here because Kelly's made a difference in our lives," Tragesser said.

Michelle Collins, who did time for forgery, remembered Gissendaner persuading her to stop misbehaving and start caring about her future.

"She looked around at us and said, 'At least y'all are going to get out of here again. Who are you to throw your lives away when I'm never going to get out of here?'" said Collins.

"She gave me the will to do something good when I got out," said Collins, adding that she now makes good money working for a Fortune 500 company. "She told me to make sure I never came back and I never have."


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