It is a great and terrible irony that our country’s correctional system does not often allow for or take much pride in perpetrators’ self-correction.
Yet to the degree that transformation within the system is possible, such appears to have happened for Kelly Gissendaner. The 46-year-old woman was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of her then-husband, Doug. It is well-documented that her accomplice and then-boyfriend committed the act — he is sentenced to life, with a chance at parol.
Gissendaner faces excecution tonight at 7 p.m. EST.
If carried through, it will be the first time since 1976 that the state of Georgia will execute an individual who was not the person physically using violence in the crime.
Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state's use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.
The Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations reject the use of capital punishment for precisely this reason.
Multiple urgent petitions and letters are circulating from social justice groups, among them an impassioned plea from more 500 clergy and religious leaders including Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Lisa Sharon Harper, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Shane Claiborne.
“It just doesn’t feel like your life should depend on how well you play the legal cards, but it sure seems to,” wrote Claiborne.
A portion of the letter states:
“While we can recognize and deeply sympathize with the profound grief of the parents and extended family of Doug Gissendaner, we also must attend to the ongoing grief of Kelly’s children who have already lost a father and who will experience immeasurable pain in losing another parent. In solidarity with their pleas for their mother’s life, in keeping with the value of mercy, and in hope for the good works Kelly could perform during a sentence of life without parole, we ask that Kelly’s life be spared.”
Of the many faith leaders and theologians who have taught, mentored, and spoken with Gissendaner, a particularly resonant correspondence developed between the inmate and Jürgen Moltmann, a prominent Protestant post-war theologian. Moltmann was himself a prisoner. Captured as a German soldier during World War II, he later found God while in jail. The two have exchanged multiple letters on Bonhoeffer, hope, suffering, and liberation.
In a moving appeal for clemency, many of these mentors presented evidence of Gissendaner’s calm presence in prison and dedication to bettering the lives of others around her.
Her appeal for clemency was denied by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on Feb. 24.
Reading the document’s extensive, impassioned pleas for more time to consider a stay, the vote to move forward with the execution reads nothing short of vindictive. Where redemption is not only clear but comprehensive, and yet clemency is denied, we must ask whether a process meant to create conditions for justice has ossified into a slavish adherence to punishment.
Documents calling for a stay on Gissendaner’s execution cite 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.