From HuffPo: "More than four hours after her scheduled execution, Kelly Renee Gissendaner, Georgia's only woman on death row, was put to death by lethal injection at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday."
Some facts. In 1997 Kelly conspired with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, to kill her husband, Doug Gissander. The murder, as murders tend to be, was brutal. Owen "put a knife to Doug Gissendaner's throat and forced him to drive to a spot near the Walton County line, then made him walk into the woods and kneel down. Owen beat Doug Gissendaner with a nightstick, he said, and stabbed him repeatedly in the neck and back."
Kelly was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. Owen was the star witness and testified against his lover.
In the time she has been in prison, Kelly has become a model inmate. More than a model, actually -- an exemplar. She has experienced deep remorse for her role in the crime and accepted full responsibility for her role in her husband's death. She has counseled many other prisoners who were on the brink of despair and suicide, showing them that they can still make something worthwhile of their lives. In 2011, she earned a certificate in divinity. She showed that, against all odds, rehabilitation is possible in the cold and hopeless world of prison.
Now she is dead at age 47.
The machinery of death in this country has an "on" switch, but no "off" switch. Once it is set in motion, there is nearly no way to stop it. Prosecutors, many of them elected officials, have no incentive to seek mercy in criminal cases. Their constituents want "justice," and so they seek the harshest punishments, and cast the mindset and motives of their prisoners in the bleakest and blackest terms. Parole boards are reluctant to set prisoners free, lest they commit more crimes. Citizens pressure lawmakers for stricter laws, harder punishments and fewer amenities for prisoners. Appeals courts are loathe to overturn the judgments of lower courts. Governors are ill-inclined to buck their state's culture and grant clemency. Justice is a kafkaesque system in which the walls close in, and every avenue of relief is slowly and surely shut. Like the throat of a serpent, whose teeth point backward down its gullet, the justice system is built not to disgorge its victims.
Pope Francis appealed for clemency in Kelly's case. Those whom Kelly saved from death spoke out for her. Her children spoke up for her. Kelly's own model record as a prisoner spoke out for her.
But the system is not geared to listen to appeals for mercy. It is not even geared to distinguish between true bad guys, who are beyond reintegration in society, and those like Kelly who have actually been rehabilitated. Maybe she should not be released from prison. But certainly, the opportunity for life should be an option.
But it isn't.
Not even acts of God interfered with the No Machine. Kelly was scheduled to be executed in February, but a freak snowstorm prevented prison staff from getting to work. It was rescheduled for March, but the death chemicals went cloudy and were deemed unfit for use. But even the extra time for consideration could not make for a gallows reprieve. A last-minute flurry of appeals was exhausted last night. One by one, the lights of hope for Kelly were extinguished.
At 12:21am today, Kelly Gissendaner sang "Amazing Grace" as the lethal chemicals coursed through her veins and performed their deadly work. Finally, she and any hope for clemency were beyond recovery.
At its root, the great gift of religion is that it opens up the option to "yes" and to life where it might not otherwise exist. Religion offers hope, healing, reconciliation, mercy, love and peace to a species that so easily chooses oppression, injury, hardheartedness, harsh justice, hatred and war. In a culture that so fetishizes its religious identity, it's more than a little ironic that the gifts of religion are so often ignored, minimized, twisted and tramped underfoot.
A coda: Gregory Owen, the man who wielded the club and knife that brutally ended Doug Gissendaner's life and who testified against his former lover, is still in prison. He will be eligible for parole in seven years.