Georgia Death Row Dilemma: God and Kelly Gissendaner

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On Monday night the State of Georgia delayed the execution of confessed murderer Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman sentenced to death in that state in seven decades. Officials claimed that was because the injectable drug that would have killed her looked cloudy. Her execution had also been delayed a week before, supposedly due to snowstorms.

Maybe the real reason Georgia is delaying is that officials know, at some level, that executing Kelly Gissendaner would be evil — as evil as her own crime.

In 1998 Kelly Gissendaner was convicted of plotting with an accomplice to kill her husband for the money she would get from his life insurance policy.

Her plan was manipulative, horrific and cold-blooded. She was manipulative, horrific and cold-blooded. And she was rightfully caged in a penitentiary.

Then things began to change. Since 1998, Gissendaner has found God, with the help of leading theologian Jennifer McBride, Board of Regents Chair of Ethics and assistant professor of religion at Wartburg College in Iowa. Gissendaner has earned a degree in theology. She has ministered to her fellow inmates, many of whom credit her for their religious awakenings. At least one credits Gissendaner with saving her from suicide. Dozens of prison guards, wardens, inmates and ministers have pleaded with Georgia to grant her clemency.

Let us not take on the whole question of whether capital punishment is barbarism. I believe it is; you may not. But can we not agree that when a person has changed as thoroughly as Kelly Gissendaner — as evidenced by her words and deeds and the profound and positive impression she has made on others — that executing her is, for all intents and purposes, very close to executing an entirely different person from the one convicted of murder?

And if we can agree to that, is it not very close to executing an innocent person? And is that realization not the very lesson Christ teaches those who believe: that people can, through a love of the Infinite, be remade and reclaimed, such that they are as new, as if born, again?

I know this lesson of Christ to be true, not because I was raised a Christian, but because I have had the privilege to become a psychiatrist and practice my profession for two decades. And I have seen many, many people whose lives have tended, nearly unavoidably, toward darkness because of life events entirely outside their control when they were children. I have seen them remake themselves by accepting the pain they lived through decades ago, crying over it and making peace with it. And I know that this psychological rebirth is no fraud when it unfolds, and it is no different from spiritual rebirth. I know now that psychiatrists operate as much in the House of God as the House of Medicine.

Maybe officials of the State of Georgia are not being disingenuous when they identify snow in the air or cloudiness in the executioner’s vial as the reasons they postponed Kelly Gissendaner’s execution. Maybe they aren’t really halting because they know that what they are doing — executing a person now good and decent — is wrong. Maybe they forget that a penitentiary is also defined (no accident) as a tribunal of mercy. But if so, perhaps even they can wonder where that snow in the cold Georgia night came from and where the cloudiness in that cold vial of lethal chemical came from that stopped them from stopping Ms. Gissendaner’s heart.

God is everywhere, and He operates in mysterious ways.