Justice has different meanings for Kelly Gissendaner’s family


The definition of justice is different for different members of Kelly Gissendaner’s family.

“This case is a tough one,” said Lauren Sudeall Lucas, who is a law professor at Georgia State University and member of the board for the Southern Center for Human Rights. “No one’s been harmed more than Mrs. Gissendaner’s children and yet they are pleading for their one parent to be kept alive.”

After years of estrangement, two of Gissendaner’s three children have forgiven her for killing their father, Douglas.

The sister and brother have worked with their mother’s lawyers to produce an emotional video in which they beg that Kelly Gissendaner be spared from her execution scheduled for Tuesday. They say their lives will be destroyed if their mother is put to death for their father’s 1997 murder in Gwinnett County.

“I haven’t done anything wrong and I feel like I’m the one who’s being punished,” Kayla Gissendaner, Kelly Gissendaner’s daughter said, “The emotional toll it’s taken is horrible.”

But their renewed relationship with their mother has only widened the gap with their grandparents who want Kelly Gissendaner’s execution carried out as scheduled.

Douglas Gissendaner’s parents and sisters saw their lives devastated in 1997 when their then-daughter-in-law persuaded her lover to kill their son.

Their lives in anonymity became public then and now again as they await the justice they seek. The video featuring their grandchildren only added to their pain, according to Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter who speaks with the family often as the execution date nears.

He said they feel they are seen “as the only reason that Kelly is not getting her sentence commuted and that’s unfair to them. They just want to get this done and get on with their lives.”

Jessalyn Dorsey, executive director of the Crime Victims Advocacy Council, said victims’ love ones just want justice.

“There’s no closure for a family, no matter how long it is,” Dorsey said. “Every time they have to share their story or tell a story in the media it sends them back to, a lot of times, the initial incident.”

And they are also reminded when advocates for the murdereress engage in a public relations campaign to save her from the needle.

Kayla Gissendaner and her younger brother, Dakota, have declined repeated requests for interviews but they have been on social media rallying for a movement with the hashtag #kellyonmymind and in a video that was posted on YouTube.

“My brothers and I want my mom to live,” Kayla Gissendaner said on the video. “She’s all we have left. My brothers and I lost one parent. I don’t know if I can lose another. I don’t know if I can handle that. It’s the most awful feeling to know they both should be gone.”

Their father’s family, now living in Alabama, have kept out of the public eye. Douglas Gissendaner’s father spoke with a reporter in 1999, after the trial, and said at the time he knew Kelly Gissendaner “could be mean, but I didn’t think she could do that.” He said his wife was certain that Kelly Gissendaner was “going to get off, eventually.”

Since then, however, there have only been a few written statements from Douglas Gissendaner’s parents and sisters, often in response to public pronouncements by her children or her supporters’ proclamations that Kelly Gissendaner has become a child of God and is a different person from the woman who orchestrated a murder almost 18 years ago.

“Doug is the true victim of this premeditated and heinous crime,” his family said in a statement released after her execution was called off on March 2 because of a problem with the lethal injection drug. “We, along with our friends and supporters and our faith, will continue fighting for Doug until he gets the justice he deserves, no matter how long it takes.”

Kelly and Douglas Gissendaner had an off-and-on relationship that started in the late 1980s that included multiple separations, a divorce and remarriage leading up to December 1996 when they bought a house together in Auburn, a small town at the Barrow and Gwinnett Counties line.

But by then, Kelly Gissendaner was also involved with Gregory Owen, the man who would eventually murder her husband.

Owen pleaded guilty to kidnapping Douglas Gissendaner, knocking him unconscious and then repeatedly stabbing him in the neck, but he said it was his lover’s idea. She didn’t want to be married to Douglas Gissendaner but she didn’t want a divorce either, Owen testified. He said Kelly Gissendaner said death was the only way to get Douglas out of her life and still get the house and payoff from his life insurance.

At that time the children were 3, 6 and 10.

“The night my father was murdered the world was changed,” Kayla Gissendaner said in a written statement released with the video.

Kelly Gissendaner was saved from her scheduled death on March 2 because of problems with the lethal injection drug. Her lethal injection was rescheduled once the state finished its test of the drugs and the court dismissed a lawsuit brought because of the problem with the pentobarbital.

“As a young child I could not grasp why my father had been taken from me,” she wrote. “As my awareness grew, so did my anger toward my mother.”

Eventually, Kayla Gissendaner said, she just wanted answers when she agreed to meet with her mother. They have now reconciled.

“My father would not want this to happen,” she said. “He would not want the children he loved so much to endure the unspeakable pain that her execution would bring.

» RELATED CONTENT: The latest on the Kelly Gissendaner case

» INTERACTIVE: Learn more about The Marshall Project | How lethal injection works


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