Faith leaders across the midstate joined their counterparts throughout Georgia in opposing Monday night’s scheduled execution of Kelly Gissendaner.
In recent days, social media sites were abuzz with efforts to make the general public aware of Gissendaner’s situation and her life in prison. Since being convicted and sent to death row in 1998 for a plan that led to the slaying of her husband, Doug, Gissendaner, 46, completed a degree program through the Candler School of Theology.
One online petition seeking the commutation of her sentence included the names of about two dozen Middle Georgia pastors, teachers and others against the execution. Among them were the Rev. Ben Wells, St. Francis Episcopal Church in Macon; the Rev. Timothy Bagwell, Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon; the Rev. Craig McMahan, Mercer University; and the Rev. Scott Petersen, All Saints Episcopal Church in Warner Robins.
Mercer University graduate Sarah Hedgis worked as a prison chaplain and theology course instructor while Gissendaner was at Metro State and Arrendale women’s prisons. Hedgis held a vigil Monday night in New York City, where she is pursuing ordination in the Episcopal church.
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“She has repented and asked for forgiveness. And she has changed, living into what mercy and redemption can look like by showing forgiveness, kindness and compassion to others throughout her incarceration,” Hedgis said in an email Monday afternoon. “Yes, Kelly’s transformation is amazing and, I believe, a compelling reason to stop her execution.”
In her own application for a 90-day stay of execution and commutation of her sentence to life in prison, Gissendaner acknowledged that change but also accepted responsibility for her actions. She called her late husband “a wonderful person and generous and loving husband and father” before noting that there are “no excuses” for her part in his death.
“I am fully responsible for my role in my husband’s murder,” Gissendaner wrote. “I had become so self-centered and bitter about my life and who I had become that I lost all judgment. I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned firsthand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”
At the time of the murder, she had a romantic relationship with Gregory Owen, with whom she plotted to have her husband killed. Owen actually stabbed Doug Gissendaner to death, but he is serving a life sentence after accepting a plea deal that stipulated he wouldn’t seek parole for 25 years.
Kelly Gissendaner was offered the same deal, but her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, did not urge her to accept it, he said in her clemency application.
“To be honest, I never thought Kelly would get death. I did not think a Gwinnett County jury would sentence her to death even if they believed the state’s theory,” he said. “I guess I thought his because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug. I am sure that this had an impact on how I viewed the plea offer from the state.”
That particular aspect of the case was part of Suzanne Hobby-Shippen’s opposition to Gissendander’s scheduled execution. She is against capital punishment in general and is a member of the organization Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She said the difference between Owen’s sentence and Gissendaner’s made the case worth another look.
“With each case, especially lately, there are so many parts to the death penalty that you can highlight,” she said.
Hobby-Shippen and her husband, Joseph, led a vigil in front of the Macon-Bibb County Government Center Monday night.