Meeting Kelly Gissendaner
Have you met Kelly? Not the mug shot that is in every news article, not the “first woman in 70 years to be executed in Georgia,” not the woman who you might think ordered too much food for her last meal. I’m talking about Kelly Gissendaner, child of God, sinner saved by grace, a minister who was known for sharing Christ’s love with both prisoners and prison guards.
If you haven’t met Kelly you better hurry, because time is running out. On Monday the state of Georgia will execute Kelly Gissendaner, not because she killed her husband, but because she asked someone else to. The person who actually killed Doug Gissendaner is Gregory Owen, a man who is not on death row or in danger of dying. In fact, he’ll be eligible for parole in eight years. He lucked out by being the first to say, “yes” to the identical plea deal both he and Kelly were offered.
But let’s not talk about him. Let’s talk about Kelly because we don’t have much time. You need to read her story and hear her words. You need to hear the words of her children who are now grieving the possible loss of a second parent. You need to hear from her friends and teachers, from the chaplains and ministers who witnessed Kelly’s transformation. You need to listen to the prison guards tell you how Kelly was a calming spirit to troubled inmates, how she told her story to youth on probation to prevent them from making the same mistakes. And keep reading her clemency application until you find the story of the woman whose life Kelly saved by convincing her not to commit suicide in prison.
You need to read Kelly’s story so you can judge for yourself whether or not Kelly should die, because her story has not yet been given a fair hearing. And if you think Kelly’s life is worth saving, then you must act, even if your voice is lost in the powerful, fearful wind that surrounds us. For if we do nothing, if we cannot even listen to her story, then we too are complicit in her death.
The first thing you need to know about Kelly is that she’s sorry, tremendously sorry for the part she plaid in her husband’s murder. She said:
“[I]t is impossible to put into words the overwhelming sorrow and remorse I feel for my involvement in the murder of my husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Doug was a wonderful person and a loving and generous husband and father….I wish I could truly express how sorry I am for what I did, but there is just no way to capture the depth of my sorrow and regret. I would change everything if I could….I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned first-hand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”
The other thing you need to know is who Kelly is now. The people who know Kelly say that seventeen years later, she has changed, really changed. Its not just that she’s “found God” as so many articles seem to suggest, but she has become God’s own child. She completed a Certificate in Theology that was offered by the prison and spent time studying scripture as a way to deal with her past. One of her teachers in the program, Dr. Jennifer McBride said, “Kelly has done, and continues to do, this incredibly difficult work. She has gone back to her painful memories, taken responsibility for them in the present, and shown profound remorse about whom she had been and what she had done…The depth of her spiritual growth in prison has been visible and concrete.”
As a person of faith, I love a good redemption story. In that place of knowing oneself and being deeply loved by God, people are called to new life, invited to take their sin and suffering and redeem it at the foot of Christ’s cross. I love to meet people who have been scooped up by God and turned around right.
I began this article by asking if you had met Kelly, but not because I know her and can introduce her to you. Her story is still one dimensional to me, words on a page that describe the life of a person I would be honored to meet. After hearing Kelly’s story, I can join Dr. James Waits in saying “I can see no good purpose in taking that life from us.”
So even at this last moment, I pray for a miracle. I pray that Kelly will be given life rather than death. And I pray that those of us who love a good redemption story will be given more time to meet this redeemed one of God.
The stories and quotes in this article come from Kelly’s clemency application. I wrote this article after spending and hour praying through this application, reading pieces of Kelly’s story and then pausing to pray, “Christ have mercy.” I invite people of faith and all people of good will to join me in reading and sharing Kelly’s story, and in praying for Kelly and those might have the power to grant her life. Share your reflections by using #KellyOnMyMind