Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Exodus 22:18)
At 12:21 am, EDT, 30 September 2015, the State of Georgia carried out the sentence of death by lethal injection on Kelly Gissendaner, for the murder of her husband Douglas Gissendaner. Numerous appeals for new trials and requests for clemency have been denied in the years since she was sentenced.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. Ms. Gissendaner wished to be free of her husband so she could be with her boyfriend Gregory Owen. Mr. Owen asked her to seek a divorce, but Ms. Gissendaner claimed she did not believe her husband would agree to dissolve their marriage. So, she and Mr. Owen devised a plan by which Mr. Owen would kill Douglas Gissendaner. According to plan, Mr. Owen stabbed Mr. Gissendaner to death on 7 February, 1997.
Both Owen and Ms. Gissendaner were arrested and charged with the murder, but (possibly because Owen took a plea deal to reduce his sentence), the Attorney General’s office claimed that the plan belonged solely to Ms. Gissendaner. Mr. Owen received a sentence of 25 years to life, with a possibility of parole (which I believe comes 8 years from now). Ms. Gissendaner did not take a deal, and had a jury trial. The result was a guilty verdict and a jury-recommended death sentence in 1998.
Eighteen years later, after many appeals (as high as the US Supreme Court), by which her sentence could have been commuted to life without parole, clemency has been denied. During that time, Kelly Gissendaner became, by all accounts, a “model prisoner”, compliant and helpful to others, and earned a college degree. She showed appropriate remorse for her actions. Her children pleaded for commutation (and it should be noted her children are also the victim’s children, so denial of clemency leaves them bereft of not one parent, but both).
A woman “masterminds” the murder of her husband and the father of her three children. She does not deal the death blow, but persuades her lover to do so. Her lover chooses not to resist her influence–or does he have a choice? Is her hold over him so absolute as to deprive him of his free will, to a point where he cannot judge right from wrong and will commit acts he would otherwise find abhorrent?
Gregory Owen took a plea deal which allowed him to live. But for a crime as heinous as the one in which he participated, someone must pay the ultimate price. Which, I am sure, factored into the thinking of the jury, the judiciary, and the pardon and parole system, in deciding Ms. Gissendaner must die.
Forget for a moment the grotesque disproportion between her having planned the murder but not personally carrying it out, and the State’s deliberate taking of her life. Forget her efforts toward amendment of life during her incarceration, and the State’s disregard for those efforts.
There is something we find abhorrent and unnatural about one person having the kind of influence over another which would lead to the second person carrying out murder at the behest of the first. There is something we find abhorrent and unnatural about a married woman taking a lover. There is something we find abhorrent and unnatural about a mother plotting, or even desiring, the demise of her children’s father.
And when we cannot impose the maximum sentence on the person whose hands applied lethal force to the victim, our thirst for blood and retribution must be satisfied some other way. We reduce the actual killer’s responsibility through a plea deal, and we take the easy road of executing his co-conspirator.
We find the influence she exerted on him to be an aggravating circumstance, which makes the influence more culpable than the act. We allow the victim’s “family” (mainly siblings, parents, and those further out–but oddly, not his children) to call for vengeance, which is thinly and politely disguised as “justice”.
Someone must die, eye for an eye, life for a life, and all that jazz.
We don’t question whether someone really must die. We don’t question what purpose is served by the death.
I’ve said before it would have been inappropriate for the legal system to consider Ms. Gissendaner’s conversion to Christianity when considering her request for clemency. I stand by my earlier declarations–although it would have been perfectly appropriate for the State to consider the secular fruits of her remorse and subsequent amendment of life. It would have been perfectly appropriate to allow those fruits to ripen, even within the highly constrained circumstances of a sentence of life without parole.
It is inappropriate for the State to make theological assessments. But the State, to some extent, did exactly that. It decided the influence Kelly Gissendaner exercised over Gregory Owen was so unnatural, so abominable, that it must be extinguished. And no appeal, no amendment of life, no plea by her children to allow her to continue to live even under extreme limitations, could sway the judgement and commute her sentence to life without parole.
In other words, the State decided Ms. Gissendaner could not, should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to continue her earthly existence. She exercised such extreme influence over one person as to cause him to override his better judgement and commit murder. What if she managed to do it again?
Behind the walls of a heavily-guarded prison, Ms. Gissendaner posed very little threat to anyone outside the facility. If she managed to exercise such influence, it would have been a blot on the record of the prison as much as evidence of her own bad character.
And we cannot have a blot on the reputation of our societal institutions. Not by someone who can unnaturally influence her illicit lover to murder her children’s father.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
And the State of Georgia, with the blessing of the United States Supreme Court, made the theological judgement she should die.
It would be nice if we could say Georgia is a religiously conservative backwater, and as a result, came to the decision on its own. But the highest court in the country upheld that decision. Which makes the entire nation complicit.
Welcome to Salem, 2015.