Hers is a life measured by the dictates of Pulaski State Prison: when to rise, when to eat, when to go to bed so she can repeat the process the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. This is how Kelly Gissendaner’s life will unspool until the state of Georgia ends it.
That day may not be far off. Judicial officials on Friday issued a death warrant, Gissendaner’s third, for convincing her lover to kill her husband two decades ago. Her execution date is set for Sept. 29 and, if it proceeds, she would become the first woman Georgia has put to death since 1945.
That day will not arrive, say her supporters, without a chorus of cries that Gissendaner, 47, be spared the ultimate punishment.
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A loose-knit collection of former female convicts credit Gissendaner with giving them hope behind bars, ministering to them through an air vent. They are urging the state to reconsider her death sentence and let her live out her days in prison instead. The women call themselves Struggle Sisters.
Gissendaner acknowledges she coordinated the beating and stabbing death of her husband in 1997. She faced capital punishment twice earlier this year. Bad weather delayed one execution; a cloudy vial of lethal drugs prompted the second execution’s postponement.
The former inmates see those delays as a final chance to make their appeal. The women have established a Facebook page explaining their mission. They’ve recorded videos pleading her case, echoing the emotional pleas for mercy coming from two of Gissendaner’s children.
The women credit Gissendaner with helping them turn their own troubled lives around. Nikki Roberts, convicted of robbery, is typical.
“I was at my low of lows” when chance brought her into contact with Gissendaner, the Atlanta resident recalled. “But I got some hope.”
She got it at Metro State Prison, where she’d been temporarily sent to “lockdown,” a cell block for high-security female prisoners or inmates who posed a threat to themselves. Roberts had earned a spot: She’d tried to slit her wrists.
In the new cell, she cried, cursed, howled. She paused in her rantings only when she heard a voice, coming through a heating vent: “Don’t wish death on yourself,” the voice said. “You sound like you’ve got some sense.”
The voice, she discovered, belonged to Gissendaner, Georgia’s sole female facing capital punishment — and, Roberts quickly learned, the sole voice of compassion in that echoing warren.
Roberts listened. The voice said she ought to sign up for some teaching courses, maybe impart some of that knowledge to others. Gissendaner, who’d spent years studying theology, suggested topics that Roberts might study. A chaplain agreed to work with her.
Prison officials transferred Roberts back to the general population. She was, they discovered, a different inmate. She joined a choir. She became a prayer leader. She served her 10 years and was paroled last year. Roberts now works for an Atlanta agency that teaches adult literacy.
Others could benefit from Gissendaner’s counsel, Roberts said.
“Killing Kelly is essentially killing hope,” said Roberts, 40. “Kelly is the poster child for redemption.”
That’s not just hyperbole, said Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights. The Atlanta nonprofit specializes in prison issues, especially capital punishment cases.
Gissendaner, he suggested, has changed for the better in her two decades behind bars. “There is such a thing as redemption,” Bright said. “I’ve seen it over and over.”
Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on capital punishment, likened Gissendaner’s case to that of Karla Faye Tucker. Convicted of murder in Texas, Tucker became a Christian while in prison. Like Gissendaner, she counseled other inmates and built a following of supporters urging Texas corrections officials to commute her sentence to life in prison. It wasn’t enough: In 1998, the state gave her a lethal injection.
Gissendaner’s supporters may have just as much of an uphill fight, she said. “It’s too few people at too low a rung in the hierarchy of influence,” she said. “They would have to make a lot of noise. But who knows?”
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter believes that Gissendaner deserves the death penalty and accused her of manipulation in planning her husband’s slaying and in trying to avoid execution.
Gissendaner has never forgotten her crime, said her lead defense lawyer, Susan Casey. “She prays every day for the people she’s hurt,” said Casey.
The Struggle Sisters, she said, are a collective voice of conscience. “We didn’t even know about them until they started coming to us,” Casey said.
They appeared - seemingly out of nowhere - at Gissendaner’s clemency hearing earlier year, intent on explaining to anyone who would listen how the death row inmate set them on a new course. Gissendaner’s clemency plea was denied but her legal team soon learned that the inmates their client had counseled in prison were among her most passionate defenders.
“These women have some incredible stories of rehabilitation and change,” Casey said.
Kara Stephens, for one. Convicted of armed robbery, she was remanded to Metro’s lockdown for fighting. There, she met Gissendaner, and was impressed with her grace under the worst sort of pressure. What other death-row prisoner, she wondered, could find reason to be upbeat?
As her days of incarceration dwindled, Stephens despaired. Would her children welcome her back? Where would she stay? Could she survive in society after a decade of strictly regulated existence?
“I was just wanting to give up,” said Stephens, now 38. “I was terrified of going home.”
Gissendaner offered some support: Stephens was somebody. God loved her. Things would be OK.
In March 2009, a frightened Stephens re-entered society. These days, she works for a Chattanooga social-works agency sponsored by the Presbyterian church.
Nicole Legere, convicted of theft, is another Struggle Sister. When lawyers asked if she’d appear in a video supporting Gissendaner, she said yes.
“I saw the change in (other inmates) who talked to her,” said Legere, 36, who left prison in 2013 after serving her full sentence. She lives in Ringgold and works for a printing company.
“There needs to be people like her, someone to be a mentor,” Legere said. “She’s a lot of hope. And there’s not much hope in there.”
To Learn More about this execution and capital punishment nationwide:
Women and Capital Punishment:
Women remain a rarity on death row.
There are 56 women currently awaiting execution in the United States. That represents less than 2 percent of the total death row population.
Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, 15 women have been executed in the United States - or 1 percent of the 1,414 executions.
In Georgia, the last woman put to death was Lena Baker, who was electrocuted in 1945. Baker who was black, was executed for killing a white mill operator in Cuthbert, Ga. She had been hired to care for him after he broke his leg. She argued he tried to sexually assault her and has since been pardoned.
Sources: The Death Penalty Information Center and the NACCP Legal Defense Fund