Kelly Gissendaner is on death row in Georgia, her execution having been postponed twice recently. Her religious faith and theological studies while in prison have gained her many admirers who are campaigning for commutation of her sentence amid much favorable media attention.
One teacher from a Lutheran college, writing for CNN, first met Gissendaner in prison, where the inmate “arrived for class beaming with excitement about the journey she was about to begin — participation in a yearlong academic theology program sponsored jointly by four Atlanta seminaries.” The convicted murderer was “full of contagious joy and gratitude, open to others and to new experiences for growth and ministry.”
Visits by a pastor to her prison over the years helped launch Gissendaner towards “courageous self-reflection,” finding “her own voice and [coming] to see that her reflections on Christian faith could be a gift to the wider church ‘on the outside,’ as well as in prison,” as the professor recounted.
Gissendaner recalled, after the arrival of a new prison warden, when her “worst fears became my reality — I was pulled from the courses. I was taken from my theological community. Being pulled from the program devastated me as badly as if someone had just told me one of my appeals had been turned down.”
But sympathetic professors came to her to ensure she could complete her theological degree. Gissendaner read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, and Jürgen Moltmann, a renowned, now elderly German theologian who has visited her in prison and spoke at her commencement.
A New York Times profile of Gissendaner notes that in 1998 she was “sentenced to death for persuading her boyfriend to murder her husband. The crime, which she now admits, was brutal. Many, including some of her slain husband’s relatives, want her to die.”
Most news accounts of Gissendaner as theologian don’t elaborate on the details of her “brutal” crime, nor do they include comments from the victim’s family, who were of course also her family until she contrived to whack her husband. Instead they focus on her friendships with teachers and clergy, as well as her reported gentle spiritual influence on inmates and guards.
But Gissendaner was not always so gentle. In 1997 she recruited her lover to murder her army veteran husband, with whom she had three children (one was biologically his), and whom she had married twice, for a $10,000 life insurance policy and the couple’s $84,000 house, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. Before heading out for nightclubbing with friends, she dropped her boyfriend at her house, where he waited in ambush until the husband returned from helping church friends repair a car. The boyfriend forced her husband into the husband’s own car at knifepoint and to drive to a remote area, where he force-marched him into the woods and ordered him to his knees, “beat him in the head with a nightstick, stabbed him in the neck and back several times and left.”
Gissendaner had provided the weapons, paging her lover after the deed and showing up with a coke bottle full of kerosene to burn her husband’s car and destroy evidence. They left her husband’s bashed and stabbed body in the woods, after Gissendaner inspected it by flashlight, and where it was found, with animal bites, by game wardens 11 days later, with Gissendaner claiming she was at a “total loss” about her husband’s absence, even performing before TV cameras. She had instructed her lover to take her husband’s watch and wedding ring to create the appearance of robbery.
Gissendaner later confessed the crime to a friend but insisted to police her lover had coerced her. In jail, she tried to cajole someone into perjury on her behalf and to both rob and beat witnesses against her. Before her arrest, she drove her car towards a witness, saying, “I ought to run the bitch over.”
The boyfriend turned state’s evidence after police told him that Gissendaner was seeing other men. He got a life sentence while she fought the charges against her. The jury of ten women and two men rejected her plea that her sentence not exceed her lover’s. Her later appeal for clemency hails her husband as a “wonderful person and loving and generous husband and father,” one of the community’s “finest citizens.”
Meanwhile her husband’s parents and siblings have pressed for the ultimate penalty for Gissendaner. “Doug is the true victim of this premeditated and heinous crime,” declared a statement from “The Family of Douglas Morgan Gissendaner,” which promised: “We, along with our friends and supporters and our faith, will continue fighting for Doug until he gets the justice he deserves no matter how long it takes.”
But some of Gissendaner’s defenders imply that since religion has made her a different person, she’s no longer responsible for her crimes. A Fox News psychiatrist implored: “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?”
In a similar vein, a Christianity Today editorial surmised: “The evidence is clear: Kelly has turned her life around.” And: “The Georgia Department of Corrections has, in fact, done its job. It’s in the business of correcting people. Some of those corrected people can be freed; others have to remain behind bars. The Department of Corrections cannot correct the past, but it can make it possible for the convicted to correct their ways and lead meaningful lives behind bars.”
Is it really Christian teaching that the state’s duty is to persuade convicted murderers to “turn their life around” and “lead meaningful lives?” Unlike other crimes, murderers cannot make recompense to their victims, who are of course dead. Christianity has traditionally taught that the state’s duty is to execute murderers in pursuit of justice. It’s the church’s duty to offer divine redemption.
Gissendaner’s murdered husband, left mutilated and dead at age 30 in the woods for 11 days, seems largely absent from pronouncements demanding clemency for his killer. He will never be able to get a theological degree, read great books, mix with famous people, or be celebrated for his remarkable good works, much less raise his children. His story, and his family’s sufferings, are an unwanted distraction from the preferred celebration of his homicidal wife’s spiritual transformation.
Maybe there’s a case for sparing Gissendaner. But most of the arguments so far, by stressing her incredible ministry, and her new identity divorced from her past, would logically urge her release from prison altogether, allowing her to help countless others. And her advocates seem mostly unwilling to address her crime in detail, preferring to portray her as a different person no longer responsible for a dark act long ago.
Gissendaner may now be a forgiven person, and the recipient of God’s grace. Let’s pray so. But she is still the same person who left her “loving and generous” husband, the father of her children, as food for wildlife. She may ultimately join the saints in heaven, yet she’s still responsible on this earth for her temporal crimes, for which the laws and courts of Georgia have rightful jurisdiction.