Pope, Last Minute Petition Couldn't Save Woman From Execution

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 30, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Georgia executed death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner Wednesday morning, having defeated an 11th hour legal appeal that sought to spare her life. Gissendaner, who was sentenced to death for conspiring with her boyfriend to kill her husband, became Georgia's first female prisoner to be executed in 70 years.

Advocates, including Pope Francis, had argued for clemency. The Pontifex Maximus wrote a letter urging Georgia to commute her sentence and her children attended a parole board hearing to argue on her behalf, missing her execution in the process. Despite that advocacy, Gissendaner was executed soon after a last minute 1983 complaint was rejected by the Eleventh Circuit last night.

Papal Advocacy, But No Clemency

Gissendaner was convicted of malice murder for convincing her boyfriend to kill her husband, Doug Gissendaner, in 1997. According to the Georgia Supreme Court, Gissendaner was convinced that her husband must die, since she believed he "wouldn't leave her alone just by divorcing him." Gregory Owen, Gissendaner's boyfriend and the man who actually killed her husband, was sentenced to life as part of a plea agreement; Gissendaner was given the death penalty.

In prison, Gissendaner "achieved some renown for her spiritual development" and good works, according to The New York Times. That lead to the Pope's intervention in her case. A letter from the Vatican implored Georgia officials "to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy."

The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected pleas from Gissendaner, her children, and the Pope; simultaneously, the Eleventh Circuit quickly dismissed a last ditch appeal by her lawyers. A 1983 claim argued that Georgia's lethal injection protocol constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

No Help From the Eleventh Circuit

The Eleventh Circuit quickly disposed of that argument, noting that under the Supreme Court's recent opinion in Glossip v. Gross must show a substantial risk that she will be caused needless suffering by an execution method, something which they ruled Gissendaner could not do.

It wasn't just Gissendaner's hopes of evading the death penalty that were slapped down by the Eleventh, either. The court also prominently called out Gissendaner's attorneys for breaches in civil procedure and general decorum -- in the third paragraph of the opinion, no less. Taking issue that Gissendaner's initial complaint combined both a complaint and memorandum of law, in violation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8, the court wrote that:

The result of their ignoring Rule 8 is a document that is anything but a short and plain statement of a claim. It quotes Camus, numerous newspaper and magazine articles as well as Internet postings, and resorts to hyperbolic language (e.g., 'There is a name for such a proceeding: a star chamber."). [Star chambers were biased, politically motivated courts from Renaissance England.] The district court would have been well within its discretion to strike the document.

Dismissing Gissendaner's complaint, over the dissent of Judge Adalberto Jordan, the Eleventh allowed the state to pursue execution the very same day. The Supreme Court quickly rejected three subsequent requests for a stay. After an additional five hour delay, Gissendaner was killed via lethal injection. According to Jeff Hullinger, a reporter who witness the execution, she died singing "Amazing Grace."

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