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Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on Georgia's death row, peers through the slot in her cell door as a guard brings her a cup of ice at Metro State Prison in Atlanta in this 2004, file photo.

TO GET INVOLVED

Visit kellyonmymind.com, amnestyusa.org or call the Georgia Prisons and Parole Board at 404-656-4661 or Gov. Nathan Deal at 404-656-1776.

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David Cook

 

A veteran Chattanooga cop, Marcus Easley, 52, had always believed in the death penalty. After all, he'd been shot. Stabbed. Folks tried to kill him. An eye for an eye, right?

"I was pretty jaded," he said. "I was pro death penalty, until about 15 years ago."

That was the day Easley was touring a women's prison near Atlanta, as part of his volunteer work with prison ministries. Walking onto death row, with his jaded, pro-death penalty heart, Easley met an inmate unlike any other criminal he had known.

An inmate so gracious and contagiously compassionate, his views on God and the death penalty would take a big U-turn.

"Kelly," he said.

Her name is Kelly Gissendaner. She is 47, a native of Georgia and, in 1998, was convicted of plotting to kill her husband, Doug. For the last 17 years, she has been the only woman on Georgia's death row. (The man who killed her husband was given life.) Somewhere along the way, Kelly became more than a death row inmate.

She became one of God's greatest stories.

On death row, Gissendaner was born again. The epitome of transformation — the Saul-to-St. Paul of Georgia's death row — Gissendaner gobbled up theology courses, at least 13 of them, all while becoming pen-pal friends with the famous German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann. She and friends share a jailhouse Eucharist — cheeseburger and Diet Coke — since the jail allows no outside food or wine.

She takes full responsibility for her crime — I'm the one who put me here, she tells people — and also takes full responsibility for loving those around her.

"Kelly Gissendaner is a peacemaker and has many times made the job safer for me and my staff," one guard said.

Let one story stand for 1,000: Gissendaner once met an inmate who was suicidal. Speaking to her through an air vent that connected their two cells, Gissendaner prayed, whispered, counseled to the woman: God loves you. Your life matters.

Years later? The woman is out of prison. Married. With kids. Running a family business.

"Hope," said Kara Stephens, a local woman who is part of the national Struggle Sisters, a group of former inmates once incarcerated with Gissendaner. "She gave everybody around her hope."

"Absolutely," said Easley. "She's in my top 10. One of the most genuine and real people I have ever met."

Over the years, Gissendaner and Easley — the cop and the death row inmate — became dear friends. He continues to visit, sometimes by himself, other times bringing students from the criminal justice courses he teaches. They'll sit on the floor — Kelly in her 9-by-12 cell, the students on the death row tile — and she'll talk for an hour, maybe two, about how to make good decisions. And family. Love. Faith.

"I no longer support the death penalty," Easley said. "I understand it, but don't understand the need for it. I don't see why we think killing people who kill people makes sense."

The state of Georgia disagrees.

Tuesday night at 7, state officials plan on executing Gissendaner. They will walk Gissendaner from her cell, strap her down on a death row gurney, swab clean her arms, then inject her with a cocktail of drugs, including pentobarbital, a drug banned in Europe, until her heart and organs stop working.

They will kill her.

Despite her radical transformation.

Despite petitions signed by pastors from the West Coast to the East.

Despite another petition with 85,000 signatures.

Despite 54 pages of clemency testimony from guards, inmates, ministers and theologians, all testifying to the goodness she now embodies.

Despite the pleas of two of Gissendaner's children.

"We've lost our dad," Kayla Gissendaner said. "We can't imagine losing our mom, too."

Appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is a five-member board that already has denied Gissendaner clemency from death row to life without parole. As other U.S. states quietly walk away from the death penalty — there were 98 executions in 1999, and only 35 last year, USA Today reported — Georgia remains firm in its policy, keeping it square in the cruel company of Iran, China and beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

How can God transform and unharden the heart of a death row inmate but not the suit-and-tie Board of Pardons and Paroles?

"Remember when the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus?" Easley said. "Yes, the law said she was to be put to death. Yes, the crowd wanted her put to death. But the greatest judge in the world chose not to. He chose rather to show mercy."

"If he can do it," Easley asks, "why can't we?"

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

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