JACKSON, Ga. — Georgia postponed its first execution of a woman in 70 years late Monday, as officials cited problems with the lone drug that would be used for the lethal injection.
The drug, pentobarbital, had a cloudy appearance, prompting officials to called a pharmacist and then out of an "abundance of caution" to postpone the execution, said Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan. She did not give a new date.
Kelly Renee Gissendaner was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. at the prison in Jackson. The execution was put on hold while officials waited for the U.S. Supreme Court to either grant or deny a stay requested by her lawyers. The court had still not ruled more than four hours later.
An appellate court rejected the lawyers' request for a delay on the grounds that Georgia's lethal-injection procedures aren't transparent enough to be challenged in court. Late Monday, the lawyers added additional arguments for the high court: that it should consider a stay because Gissendaner didn't kill her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, herself in February 1997. They also argued that she had been thoroughly rehabilitated.
Previously, courts had found Gissendaner had plotted the stabbing death of her husband by her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, who will be up for parole in eight years after accepting a life sentence and testifying against her.
Gissendaner would be only the 16th woman put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976. About 1,400 men have been executed since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence, denied clemency last week and upheld that decision late Monday. The woman's lawyers had urged the board to reconsider and "bestow mercy" by commuting her sentence to life without parole. The board said it voted to abide by its earlier decision after "careful consideration" of the request.
Kelly and Douglas Gissendaner had a troubled relationship, repeatedly splitting up and getting back together, divorcing and remarrying. She was a 28-year-old mother of three children, 12, 7 and 5 years old. And she had an on-again, off-again lover in Owen.
In prison, Gissendaner eventually took responsibility: Rather than divorcing her husband again, she pushed Owen to kill him. Acting on her instructions, Owen ambushed her husband while she went out dancing with friends, and forced him to drive to a remote area. Then he marched him into the woods and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said.
Owen and Gissendaner then met up and set fire to the dead man's car in an attempted cover-up, and both initially denied involvement, but Owen eventually confessed and testified against his former girlfriend.
Her lawyers challenged the constitutionality of her sentence as disproportionate, given that she wasn't there when Owen killed her husband, and yet Owen will eventually be eligible for parole. But Georgia's Supreme Court voted 5-2 Monday to deny her motion, citing Owen's testimony that she pushed for murder rather than divorce so that she could get her husband's insurance money.
In their request Monday for reconsideration, Gissendaner's lawyers said the parole board did not have a chance to hear the overwhelmingly positive testimony of many corrections employees who declined to speak up for fear of retaliation.
Her clemency petition already included testimonials from dozens of spiritual advisers, inmates and prison staff who described a seriously damaged woman transformed through faith behind bars. She has shown remorse and provided hope to struggling inmates while helping guards maintain control, they said.
"The spiritual transformation and depth of faith that Ms. Gissendaner demonstrates and practices is a deep and sincere expression of a personal relationship with God," prison chaplain Susan Bishop wrote. "It is not a superficial religious experience."
Two of Gissendaner's three children also asked the board to spare their mother's life, describing their own emotional journey from anger and bitterness to forgiveness.
"The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can't fathom losing another parent," wrote her daughter, Kayla Gissendaner. "My mom has touched so many lives. Executing her doesn't bring justice or peace to me or to anyone."
But it also has been "a long, hard, heartbreaking road" for Douglas Gissendaner's parents and sister, and they made it clear they want the execution to go forward, the Gwinnett County district attorney's office said.
More than a dozen women who served time with Gissendaner gathered outside the prison to support her Monday afternoon.
Kara Tragesser recalled Gissendaner telling her "you can do better!" when she was put on lockdown while serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.
"We're here because Kelly's made a difference in our lives," Tragesser said.
Michelle Collins, who did time for forgery, remembered Gissendaner persuading her to stop misbehaving and start caring about her future.
"She looked around at us and said, 'At least y'all are going to get out of here again. Who are you to throw your lives away when I'm never going to get out of here?'" said Collins.
"She gave me the will to do something good when I got out," said Collins, adding that she now makes good money working for a Fortune 500 company. "She told me to make sure I never came back and I never have."