Cook: The sisters who struggle for Kelly Gissendaner

Kara Stephens was losing her mind when she found her heart.

It was 2008. She was serving 10 years in a Georgia prison for robbery. She'd gotten in a fight, so guards moved her to a solitary cell in a place she calls "lockdown" -- the segregated part of the jail where they house the mentally ill, the suicidal and the death-row murderers.

For two months, Stephens, who now lives in Chattanooga, sat in solitary confinement.

"It makes you lose your mind," she said.

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There in the darkness came a light. Three or four cells down from Stephens was an inmate unlike any other in the prison. She'd whisper encouragement. Offer prayers. Recite verses. Whatever raw violence the prison offered, she offered something more precious in return.

"Hope," said Stephens. "She gave everybody around her hope."

That inmate was Kelly Gissendaner.

Since 1998, Gissendaner, who plotted her husband's death, has been on Georgia's death row. She is the only woman there. Twice this winter, the state has tried to execute her; twice, it's had to postpone.

For snow, for cloudy execution drugs, but never for mercy.

Her lawyers have 54 pages of testimony from preachers, theologians, inmates, prison officials, even Gissendaner's children, who all echo what Stephens says.

"She is not the same person she was 18 years ago," Stephens said. "Kelly does not deserve to die."

When inmates would scream and kick their metal cell doors, Gissendaner would calm them. When they'd cuss the guards, she would remind them that the guards were not their enemy. When they'd throw feces or urine, she would softly, gently, peacefully ask them to stop.

"I had a friend who caught her room on fire. She tried to hang herself. She was cussing God," Stephens said. "Then Kelly spoke to her. Kelly extended that hope to her."

People love you, Gissendaner told her. God loves you.

That inmate has since been released, and has joined a growing community called The Struggle Sisters. Started by Stephens -- who is now free, happy, in a family, working a dream job with Mercy Junction's Justice and Peace Center -- the Sisters are all female and former inmates who know and love Gissendaner.

They traveled to Atlanta for her clemency hearing. (Denied.) There, by happenstance, they ran into Gov. Nathan Deal.

"We all surrounded him," Stephens said. "We told him why we were here. How she had helped so many of us."

Such help looked like this: Among some of the most forgotten and dehumanized people in Georgia, Gissendaner spoke a message of love and hope.

"She taught us to be compassionate," Stephens said.

photo FILE- In this Nov. 18, 1998 file photo, Kelly Gissendaner in shown in court for her murder trial in Lawrenceville, Ga. Prison officials in Georgia made a last-minute decision to delay the execution of inmate Kelly Gissendaner because the lethal drug appeared cloudy, raising questions about whether it would work. Now that decision has prompted a legal challenge to a secrecy law in Georgia that bans the government from releasing any information about where it gets its death penalty drugs. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Richard Fowlkes, File) MARIETTA DAILY OUT; GWINNETT DAILY POST OUT; LOCAL TV OUT (WXIA, WGCL, Fox 5)

If only she could teach the state of Georgia.

By killing Gissendaner, the state becomes naked in all its vengeance. Not interested in transformation, mercy or rehabilitation, the state's decision to execute Gissendaner is a modern crucifixion, putting Georgia in the moral company of places like China, Iran and Iraq, each with flourishing death penalty systems.

Wise and healthy governments do not order the execution of their own citizens.

None of us should be fully defined by our worst crime.

This is the message of democracy. It is also the message of the divine, who can do nothing but love, save and heal.

Even among prisoners.

Especially among prisoners.

"We are human," Stephens said.

On Stephens' last day in prison, she was weeping -- from both the joy and fear of being released -- as she walked by Gissendaner's cell.

Gissendaner smiled and spoke.

You'll be OK.

Don't be scared.

I love you.

God says the same thing to Kelly Gissendaner.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.