ATLANTA — The daughter of the lone woman on Georgia's death row is asking the state parole board to grant her mother life in prison instead of the death penalty for plotting to have her father killed — even though she says her dad's death was "the most painful experience of my life."
Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, is scheduled to die Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson. She was convicted of murder in the February 1997 killing of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she conspired with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, to kill her husband. If the execution happens, it will be the first time Georgia has executed a woman since 1945.
The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence to life in prison, has set a clemency hearing for Tuesday.
Gissendaner told police her husband didn't return home Feb. 7, 1997, from dinner with friends in Lawrenceville, just outside Atlanta. His burned-out car was found two days later. His body was found about a week after that, roughly a mile from the car, in a remote wooded area. He had been stabbed several times.
"My father's death was extremely painful for many people, but I've recently concluded that in many ways I was the person who was most impacted by his murder," Kayla Gissendaner, who was 7 when her father was killed, wrote in a statement submitted to the board by her mother's lawyers.
"The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can't fathom losing another parent," Kayla Gissendaner continued.
Statements by Kayla Gissendaner and her brother, Dakota, were included in the clemency petition that was declassified by the parole board Monday and made available to the public. They talk about their long emotional journey from a point of bitterness, anger and wanting no contact with their mother to having formed meaningful relationships with her.
Kelly Gissendaner's oldest child, Brandon, who was 12 when Douglas Gissendaner died, did not submit a statement to the board. He visited her twice recently and she hopes he can find peace and that their relationship grows, her lawyers wrote in the clemency petition.
Kelly and Douglas Gissendaner had a troubled relationship, splitting up and getting back together multiple times, including divorcing and remarrying, according to information provided by the state attorney general's office. Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said.
"Greg was Kelly's instrument. Greg was her weapon in plunging that knife into Doug Gissendaner, pure and simple," prosecutors argued, according to a trial transcript quoted in the clemency petition. "Greg Owen was nothing but an instrument to Kelly Gissendaner. She used him."
Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's 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 Douglas Gissendaner's 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.
Owen, who pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison, testified at Gissendaner's trial. A jury found Gissendaner guilty and sentenced her to death in 1998.
Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal offered to Owen, but she rejected it. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, her lawyers argue. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death.
"I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.
In addition to the statements from her children, Gissendaner's lawyers also included numerous testimonials from spiritual leaders who have worked with her in prison, as well as guards, prison supervisors and inmates who have interacted with her. They talk about a woman who has been transformed through faith and become a force for good in prison, reaching out to troubled inmates and helping guards keep order.
The clemency application also includes a statement from Gissendaner, who apologizes to her children and to the Gissendaner family.
"There are no excuses for what I did. I am fully responsible for my role in my husband's murder," she said. "I had become so self-centered and bitter about my life and who I had become, that I lost all judgment."