Despite the Pope's pleas to end the Death Penalty, Georgia has executed Kelly Gissendaner

The Pope was in the United States for six days last week. I wrote about it in this column last Friday. He came with both religious and political agendas, speaking at the World Meeting of Families in my hometown of Philadelphia and to the United States Congress, among other places. He garnered time on all the major news networks, and, if you lived as I do in one of the cities he visited, you saw a lot of the papal mug on the local television stations. It truly was a once in a lifetime type event.

The Pope’s message, which he clearly sees as being relevant on both the religious and political fronts, was filled with words and demonstrations of compassion, redemption, forgiveness, rehabilitation and, most importantly, love. It was hard to be on either side of the political or ideological spectrum and not be moved to want to be a better person.

Just as sure as the Pope’s modified Jeep Wrangler took him out to the Philadelphia International Airport to fly back to the Vatican on Sunday night, however, America was once again about its business of putting its own people to death because of a lack of common sense and foresight. There’s a lack of common sense demonstrated in some of the death sentences in the first place, and a lack of foresight in the way we talk a talk of rehabilitation, but walk a walk of murder in spite of true rehabilitation actually being practiced.

Kelly Gissendaner was executed in Georgia shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning. Her lawyers filed appeals to the state and federal courts in a final desperation move to spare her life. Gissendaner was convicted of murder in 1997 for persuading someone else to kill her husband. The man who actually stabbed Kelly’s husband, Douglas, in the neck eight times and left him to die in the woods got a life sentence. Kelly got a deadly cocktail of drugs pushed through her veins.

Her crime was horrific, to be sure. The question, however, was whether or not she deserved the death penalty. The jury thought she did, and so did the judge. The conspirator gets the lethal injection, and the actual killer gets a life sentence. That’s the common sense question that has so many scratching their heads. But here is where the lack of foresight and so-called commitment to rehabilitation comes in to play.

Gissendaner had been on death row for 18 years and had been more than a model inmate. A petition for clemency, signed by over 90,000 people (myself included) urged Georgia governor Nathan Deal to halt the execution. According to everyone who had contact with her in the Georgia penitentiary, Kelly had made remarkable strides toward rehabilitation.

“While incarcerated, she has been a pastoral presence to many, teaching, preaching and living a life of purpose,” states the petition. “Kelly is a living testament to the possibility of change and the power of hope. She is an extraordinary example of the rehabilitation that the corrections system aims to produce.”

Even Gissendaner’s own daughter was pleased about her mother’s turn around.

“I had to face what my mom had done and find a way to forgive her,” she said. “In the process, I saw that my mom had struggled through the years to come to grips with what she had done and face her own horror about her actions.”

This particular case has attracted a great deal of attention over the past couple of years for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Kelly was to be the first woman in 70 years to be executed in Georgia. Many of Gissendaner’s supporters hoped that the Pope would be able to make a special plea during his visit to the United States, and he actually did just that. In a letter issued from the Pope via his diplomatic representative in the U.S., the Pope communicated the following message:

“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been presented to your Board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,”

During his speech to Congress, Pope Francis made a more general plea for the abolition of the death penalty altogether, invoking the word inalienable, which was surely meant to reference Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence.”

“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” Pope Francis said in the joint session.

Yet, despite a wonderful week of appearances, speeches, several masses and a special appearance at the World Meeting of Families by Pope Francis, the American people seem to continue to be more interested in vengeance than mercy. Our Constitution is supposed to protect people from punishments that are cruel and unusual; punishments that don’t fit the crime. If even, arguably, the greatest Pope since the Vatican II can’t turn our divided nation around on the unjust brutality of the death penalty as a cruel and unusual punishment, how much hope can we dare have? Our correctional system is, and has been for many years, a complete joke. There is very little correction to be had, and if rehabilitation actually does occur, it makes no difference; you’re doomed to the cocktail, regardless.

I hope that one day we’ll be able to look at ourselves and honestly ask if we’re practicing what we say we’re about when we’re preaching. It’s one thing to show our best selves to the world when the Pope comes to visit, but it’s something else again to kill one of our own three days after he’s gone.




  1. The A-Hole Low life who did the actual killin should have been put 2 death. But that just how dis-functional our system, & the wrld have bcum! We should have put the POPE in there 2! With all the Dirty Deeds him & the Vatican have committed ov the millennium’s ! ! ! Do ur research Dummies, & c4 ur self. PT-!–O2A . . .

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