Early on Sept. 30, 2015, the state I call home executed Kelly Gissendaner.
The first woman to be executed in Georgia in 70 years, Kelly was on death row for the 1997 murder of her husband, Doug Gissendaner, committed at her urging by her then-boyfriend.
The man who actually killed Doug took a plea deal that Kelly had refused. He’ll be eligible for parole in 5 years.
Kelly’s kids, Kayla, Brandon, and Dakota, had to choose between seeing their mother on her last night on earth or speaking on her behalf before the board of pardons and paroles to try to save her life. Their efforts failed, and now they’ve lost not just one parent, but two.
Jesus told the criminal being executed at his side, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:43)
I saw Kelly once. I was serving as a chaplain intern at Metro State Women’s Prison, where Kelly was incarcerated until its closure in 2011. Living on death row, she was fairly isolated—her neighbors were other inmates on lockdown for suicidal or violent behavior.
But one day, they cleared the library so she could do some legal research related to her case. I glanced over on my way to the Bible study I helped run for pregnant inmates, and there she was, unassuming in her prison clothes and nondescript haircut, bent over a book.
I heard about Kelly from other inmates and from the head chaplain. Early on in her sentence, she was visited by a pastor who would remain one of her spiritual counselors to the end—someone who loved her enough to help her confront the evil she had done and choose a different path.
She had since become a spiritual force. She plumbed the depths of repentance and redemption and acted as an anchor for those who wanted to give up hope, inspiring them to instead turn their lives around. (You can watch their testimonies here.)
At least one news source referred simply and dismissively to her long road to new life as having “found religion,” but it was much deeper than that.
She completed the theological certificate program run by my alma mater and struck up a long-running friendship and correspondence with theologian Jürgen Moltmann. She became a catalyst for activism and a de facto minister to those on the very edges of society. Even in her last weeks, as she faced the imminent possibility of her death, she offered comfort and hope to a dear friend of mine over the loss of a family member.
And after all the appeals had failed and all the lawsuits had been rejected, as Kelly prepared to receive lethal injection, she lamented over the life of a good man whose death had come by premeditated actions she had grown to profoundly regret.
She prayed. She sang “Amazing Grace.”
Said the one criminal hanging at Jesus’ side to the other: ‘And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.’ (Luke 23:41)
Here’s the thing, friends: over and over again, Jesus defied the prescriptions of his culture regarding “deserved” punishment.
Instead of an eye for an eye, we get, “turn the other cheek; give your cloak as well as your coat.” (Matthew 5:38-50) Instead of judging others for their wrongs, we get, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1,3) Instead of forgiving others seven times, we get, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
Jesus goes so far as to stop the execution of a woman who, in the eyes of the judicial system of the time, deserved to die: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
In his recent speech before Congress, Pope Francis advocated for “the global abolition of the death penalty.” The day of Kelly’s execution, he pleaded specifically for her sentence to be commuted “to one that would better express both justice and mercy.”
There are plenty of reasons for us to take up the Pope’s position: financial (capital cases and executions cost more than life imprisonments); practical (it’s not a deterrent of future crimes); moral (people who are innocent or mentally disabled are often put on death row and/or executed); constitutional (the methods of execution and the arbitrariness of the process can be considered cruel and unusual punishment).
But first and foremost, as Christians, we don’t ever get to put limits on the power of God to do a new thing in the lives of even the most hardened or hateful individuals.
Just ask the criminal crucified alongside Jesus. Or the criminals incarcerated alongside Kelly.
Then the criminal said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (Luke 23:42)
To learn more about the movement to abolish the death penalty, visit People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is a thrift-vangelist, writer, preacher, preacher’s wife, mama, and Midwesterner transplanted to the South. She has a not-so-secret passion for pop music and loves being the lone millenial in her baby boomer-filled yoga class. Born & raised UCC, she’s bi-vocational, preaching at Decatur UCC in Atlanta every other Sunday while doing admin work at a big Presbyterian church during the week. She blogs at http://thriftshopchic.com.