UPDATE: Gissendaner's execution carried out
UPDATE: JACKSON, GA (AP) - The only woman on Georgia's death row was executed early Wednesday, making her the first woman put to death by the state in seven decades.
Kelly Renee Gissendaner was pronounced dead by injection of pentobarbital at 12:21 a.m. at the state prison in Jackson. She was convicted of murder in the February 1997 slaying of her husband after she conspired with her lover, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death.
Kelly Gissendaner, 47, sobbed as she said she loved her children and apologized to Douglas Gissendaner's family, saying she hopes they can find some peace and happiness. She also addressed her lawyer, Susan Casey, who was among the witnesses.
"I just want to say God bless you all and I love you, Susan. You let my kids know I went out singing 'Amazing Grace,'" Gissendaner said.
Prison Warden Bruce Chatman left the execution chamber at 12:11 a.m. Records from previous executions indicate that the lethal drug is administered within about a minute of the warden leaving the room.
Gissendaner sang "Amazing Grace" and also appeared to sing another song before taking several deep breaths and then becoming still.
More than 100 people gathered in rainy conditions outside the prison to support Gissendaner. Among them was Rev. Della Bacote, who said she is a chaplain at Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville and who spent several hours with Gissendaner on Tuesday afternoon, talking and praying.
"She was at peace with whatever was to come," Bacote said.
Gissendaner's three children visited with her Monday but weren't able to see her Tuesday because they were testifying before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, Bacote said. The parole board is the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence in Georgia.
"Kelly embraced that the children were going to talk to the Board of Pardons and Paroles," Bacote said, adding that Gissendaner was able to speak to her children by phone Tuesday.
Two of Gissendaner's three children had previously addressed the board and also put out a video earlier this month pleading for their mother's life and talking about their own difficult path to forgiveness. Her oldest son had not previously addressed the board.
Various courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, denied multiple last-ditch efforts to stop her execution Tuesday, and the parole board stood by its February decision to deny clemency. The board didn't give a reason for the denial, but said it had carefully considered her request for reconsideration.
Gissendaner was previously scheduled for execution Feb. 25, but that was delayed because of a threat of winter weather. Her execution was reset for March 2, but corrections officials postponed that execution "out of an abundance of caution" because the execution drug appeared "cloudy."
Pope Francis' diplomatic representative in the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, on Tuesday sent a letter to the parole board on behalf of the pontiff asking for a commutation of Gissendaner's sentence "to one that would better express both justice and mercy." He cited an address the pope made to a joint session of Congress last week in which he called for the abolition of the death penalty.
Gissendaner's lawyers submitted a statement from former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher to the parole board. Fletcher argued Gissendaner's death sentence was not proportionate to her role in the crime. Her lover, Gregory Owen, who did the killing, is serving a life prison sentence and will become eligible for parole in 2022. He also noted that Georgia hadn't executed a person who didn't actually carry out a killing since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Gissendaner's lawyers also said she was a seriously damaged woman who has undergone a spiritual transformation in prison and has been a model prisoner who has shown remorse and provided hope to other inmates in their personal struggles. They gave the parole board testimonials from several women who were locked up as teens and who said Gissendaner counseled them through moments when they felt scared, lost or on the verge of giving up hope.
Douglas Gissendaner's family said in a statement Monday that he is the victim and that Kelly Gissendaner received an appropriate sentence.
"As the murderer, she's been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug who, again, is the victim here," the statement says. "She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life."
Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors have said. Acting on her instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at Gissendaner's home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said.
Investigators looking into the killing zeroed in on Owen once they learned of his affair with Kelly Gissendaner. He initially denied involvement but eventually confessed and implicated Kelly Gissendaner.
PREVIOUS STORY: The only woman on Georgia's death row was set to be executed Tuesday night after the state parole board declined to stop the lethal injection -- despite a plea from Pope Francis.
Gissendaner, a mother of three who was sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of her husband at the hands of her lover, had been set to die at 7 p.m. ET, but it was delayed for last-minute appeals.
The Supreme Court denied one stay of execution at 8:30 p.m. but still had another request to consider.
"This decision will not bring healing," Cathy Zappa, an Episcopal priest and friend of Gissendaner, said after the parole board's rejection.
"This is the third execution date she's faced, and this one had a lot of question marks around it, so I think it's been hard to even know how to feel. She's had one foot in the camp of 'I'm gonna hold out hope' and one foot in the camp of knowing she's gonna die, and preparing for that."
Pope Francis, who called for a ban on the death penalty during his visit to the United States last week, asked the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to spare her life, through a letter written by an archbishop in on his behalf.
"While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy," Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote.
Shortly after the letter was made public, the parole board announced its decision to let its original denial of clemency, voted on in February, stand.
The victim's family was split on whether Gissendaner should live or die: Her husband's relatives said she did not deserve clemency, but their three kids appeared before the board to ask that their mom's life be saved.
"Kelly planned and executed Doug's murder. She targeted him and his death was intentional," Douglas Gissendaner's loved ones said in a written statement.
"In the last 18 years, our mission has been to seek justice for Doug's murder and to keep his memory alive. We have faith in our legal system and do believe that Kelly has been afforded every right that our legal system affords.
"As the murderer, she's been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug who, again, is the victim here. She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take."
Gissendaner's application for clemency focuses on the fact that she received a harsher sentence than Greg Owen, the boyfriend who actually carried out the killing and is serving life without parole.
The application for clemency also noted that Gissendaner has been a model prisoner who counsels other inmates and completed a theology program while behind bars. Hundreds of clergy have supported her clemency bid.
If the execution proceeds as planned, Gissendaner will be the first woman put to death in the state in 70 years.
She requested her final meal last week: cheese dip with chips, Texas fajita nachos and a diet frosted lemonade.
Doug Gissendaner's family has said that whatever happens, the focus should be on him and not on his killer.
"His last act on earth was helping his friends," they said in the statement.
"He was a friendly, trusting, good-hearted soul with a smile that will never be forgotten. He was undisputedly a family man, a great friend and an even greater father who loved and sacrificed everything for the sake of his daughter and two stepsons.
"For those of us that loved him, we will always feel great sorrow and indescribable pain at how he was so brutally taken from us, but also take comfort in knowing that he's in heaven waiting for each and every one of us to rejoin him someday."