Tuesday night, as the I-75 traffic roared by, Kayla Gissendaner sat in a truck stop booth, away from the window. She ordered no food, no coffee, only water. Sick with dread, she sat waiting for midnight, when the state of Georgia planned on executing her mother.
The clock ticked its miserable seconds. Six o'clock. Seven o'clock.
Across the street, inside the death row prison, sat Kayla's mom, Kelly Gissendaner. She'd been on Georgia's death row since 1998, convicted of plotting the murder of Doug Gissendaner.
Yet over the last 17 years, Kelly changed from a hardened, angry inmate to a theology student and prison peacemaker and loving mother, forgiven by Kayla and her siblings. Tuesday night, as Kayla sat in the truck stop, preachers, theology students and former inmates prayed outside the death row for a miracle.
Eight o'clock. Nine.
Earlier that morning, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles called a last-second meeting to reconsider clemency. Was it a sign? Months before, the board had denied clemency for Kelly, but now? After all, hundreds of preachers — even Pope Francis — had asked for mercy. Tens of thousands had signed petitions. Former inmates and guards had all spoken on Kelly's behalf.
The meeting put Kayla in a terrible position. Scheduled at the same time she was to visit her mom, the meeting forced Kayla to choose: spend the precious morning with her mom, or drive to the board meeting to beg for her life?
She and her brother Cody raced up the interstate to Atlanta to plead for mercy. Then the meeting was late.
Then the unthinkable.
"They missed the last opportunity on this earth to see their mother, and then the state refused to let them address the board on her behalf," said Marcus Easley. "They wouldn't let Kayla or Cody talk. One of the board members even called her Karla."
A former Chattanooga cop, Easley met Kelly years ago during a death row tour. They became dear friends, so much so that as Kayla and Cody rushed to the clemency meeting, they asked Easley to spend Tuesday's final visitation with Kelly in their place.
For a while, Kelly, in her white death row scrubs, seemed her usual self. ("Imagine a Christian Phyllis Diller," said Easley. "If you're with Kelly and not smiling, it's your fault.") They laughed and cut up. Fed quarters into the vending machine, snacked on gummy worms, Kelly's favorite. Sang Sonny and Cher duets, then prayed.
Soon they would all hear the board's decision: her last minute clemency attempt?
Then, in the early afternoon, the guards came in, nodding that visitation time was soon over. Kelly turned quiet, and began to cry.
She and Easley — the death row inmate and the cop — began to hug. And weep.
What do you want me to tell your kids? Easley asked through tears.
Tell them this, Kelly said.
"She hugged me, grabbed me as tight as she could hold me," Easley said. "She told me to hug each one of her kids just like that, one by one, and tell them, 'I love you and I love you and I love you and Mama could not be more proud of you.'"
The guards came and led Kelly away.
Easley spent the remaining hours running from the jailhouse vigil to the truck stop booth, with Kayla.
Eight o'clock. Nine.
That night, the family of Doug Gissendaner was offered access to death row, while Kayla remained forgotten in the truck stop booth.
"Doug's family was given every opportunity to be escorted under full guard while Kayla sat in a booth across the street at a truck stop," Easley said. "The state viewed Doug's parents and sister as victims of a crime while viewing Kayla and her brother as almost irrelevant. The state bent over backwards for Doug's family but gave no consideration to Kayla at all."
Easley thinks it was intentional.
"The state got even," said Easley. "Those kids had fought against the death penalty and embarrassed them. So the state got even."
Inside the jail, the guards walked Kelly into the death chamber. They strapped her to the gurney, injected into her arm the needle that would deliver the poison, and then asked her if she wanted to say any last words.
Kelly Gissendaner began to sing.
How sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me.
"She laid her head down and started singing," Easley said. "She was singing until she was gone."
The poison hit her veins, organs and heart, and at 21 minutes after midnight, Gissendaner became the first woman in 70 years put to death by the state of Georgia.
Across the street, in a lonely truck stop booth, Kayla heard the news.
"Open wailing," said Easley. "Almost uncontrollable."
There in the Georgia night, the amazing grace of Kelly Gissendaner was silenced. As children wailed in truck stop booths, the state-sanctioned machinery of death rolled through the Bible Belt night like an I-75 rig, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles, in all its cruel and hardhearted triumph, executed a reformed, transformed child of God.
"I refuse to use the word 'execute'," said Easley. "They killed her. They killed my friend."
I once was lost.
But now, I'm found.
But now I see.
"Satan is laughing so hard," said Easley. "He's got us killing each other, thinking it's OK."
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.