The state of Georgia is set to execute Kelly Gissendaner next week, on Tuesday September 29. In some ways this case is unusual, even exceptional; in other ways, it’s business as usual – especially in a state like Georgia.
What makes Kelly Gissendaner’s case different? For one thing, she’s a woman. Gissendaner is the only woman on Georgia’s death row. If she’s executed, she’ll the first woman put to death by the State of Georgia in 70 years.
Another aspect of Kelly Gissendaner’s case that is drawing attention is the life she’s led since entering death row. She completed a theological degree program while living behind bars in Georgia through Atlanta’s prestigious Emory University. She became a minister to other women living in prison with her, and has profoundly impacted the lives of many of them. You can watch the powerful testimony of some of those women here explain how Kelly changed their lives.
What’s somewhat less unusual – but still noteworthy – is the fact that two defendants accused of the same crime received starkly different sentences. One of them is now facing imminent execution while the other may one day walk free.
Both Kelly Gissendaner and her co-defendant, Gregory Owen, were offered a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 25 years if they pled guilty to the murder of Kelly’s husband Douglas Gissendaner. Owen took the deal, but Kelly Gissendaner did not. She went to trial before a jury, which convicted her and sentenced her to death.
The thing is, while Kelly Gissendaner has taken full responsibility for her role in the murder of her husband, it was not actually she who stabbed him to death. That was done by Gregory Owen, even if it was Kelly Gissendaner who had initiated the idea. It is not that Gregory Owen should have received the death penalty – no one should, regardless of the crime or their culpability, as scores of countries have recognized. But the situation brings to mind what Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in May in his dissent in the recent lethal injection opinion of the US Supreme Court, Glossip v. Gross.
Suggesting that the time is now right for the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of the death penalty, Justice Breyer recalled how “after considering thousands of death penalty cases and last-minute petitions over the course of more than 20 years. I see discrepancies for which I can find no rational explanations. Why does one defendant who committed a single-victim murder receive the death penalty, while another defendant does not?”
When prosecutors and state officials defend the death penalty, they often use the refrain that it’s reserved for the “worst of the worst.” That’s supposed to mean that only the most serious crimes and the most culpable of offenders receive the death penalty and that the system is fair and reliable in this selection process. In reality, a host of other factors can determine who gets sentenced to death: race, class, geography, quality of legal representation, even the political aspirations of official decision-makers can play a role in who is sentenced to live or die in the United States.
No one should have their human rights stripped away by the state. Cases like Kelly Gissendaner’s illustrate why every person is more than the sum total of their worst actions. Although she participated in a violent crime with very serious consequences, she has gone on to improve the lives of many other women in prison. This has been recognized by many correctional staff who have come into contact with her over the years.
Governments are expected to prioritize rehabilitation in their prisons. Here, a prisoner’s rehabilitation is about to be met by her eradication. Surely Georgia can do better than that.