In Georgia, only one woman is awaiting execution
Kelly Gissendaner still has the Christmas card she received in 2000 from some of Georgia’s most notorious murderers and rapists.
”Merry X-Mas. Wishing you the best in life,” wrote Carl Isaacs, who was executed last year for the 1973 murders of six members of the Alday family in South Georgia.
Signed by a dozen or so men on Georgia’s death row in Jackson, the card is a cherished possession for Gissendaner, the only woman awaiting execution in Georgia.
”That’s something I’ll never part with,” she said of the card. “ ‘Cause
those guys are going through the same thing I’m going through. We may not be blood-related, but those are family.”
Gissendaner, 36, a mother of three condemned for her husband’s 1997
murder, is held in Metro State Prison in southeast Atlanta, about 45
miles from the 113 men on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and
Classification Prison in Jackson. When her yet-to-be-scheduled sentence is carried out, she will be driven to the men’s prison to be put to death by lethal injection.
Executions of women in the United States are rare. Since the death
penalty was reinstated in 1976, only 10 women have been executed,
compared with 908 men.
Georgia has not executed a woman in 59 years. Lena Baker, electrocuted in 1945, was the only woman put to death in Georgia in the 20th century.
“I do believe in general people are more reluctant to give women the
death penalty than men, and I’ve had jurors express that to me,“ said
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who sought the death
penalty against Gissendaner.
That could be changing, authorities say. Statewide, prosecutors are
seeking the death penalty against five women.
In Gissendaner’s case, she didn’t personally kill her husband. Her
boyfriend, Gregory Bruce Owen, did it at Gissendaner’s direction,
Porter successfully argued. „The argument was made that Gregory Owen was the bullet, but she was really the gun,“ Porter said.
There is no official death row for women in Georgia. Gissendaner’s cell
is one of four at Metro State Prison carved from a unit ordinarily used
for solitary confinement of inmates who cause trouble. Gissendaner’s
cell is at the end of a corridor behind a locked metal gate.
She was sentenced to death in 1998 by a Gwinnett County jury after she and her lover were convicted of conspiring to murder Doug Gissendaner,30.
Owen pleaded guilty to stabbing Doug Gissendaner. He claimed at Kelly
Gissendaner’s trial that it was her idea to kill her husband to collect
on two $10,000 insurance policies and keep possession of the couple’s
When Doug Gissendaner arrived at his home in Auburn on the night of
Feb. 7, 1997, Owen forced him into a car and drove him into some woods. He forced Gissendaner to his knees, clubbed him with a nightstick, then stabbed him four times in the neck and shoulder. Owen said Kelly Gissendaner had given him a bottle filled with kerosene that the couple used to torch Doug Gissendaner’s car.
In exchange for testifying against Kelly Gissendaner, Owen got life in
prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
’I deserve to be here’
In a recent prison interview, Gissendaner would not talk about the
specifics of her case. She hopes that an appeal will at least spare her
life. She can’t understand how the man who stabbed her husband to death could be paroled in 25 years while she is set to be executed.
“I deserve to be here, but I don’t deserve to die,“ she said. „How can
you justify me being here and he could be walking the streets one day?“
Gissendaner once walked on the other side of the cell bars, when she
worked as a guard at Phillips State Prison for five months in 1994. Her
mother has been a prison guard for 21 years at Phillips, near the north
Gwinnett County home where Gissendaner grew up.
Now, when Gissendaner walks through a Georgia prison, she wears a tan prison uniform with „Dept. of Corrections“ stenciled on the back. She is always handcuffed and accompanied by at least two guards, even when taken to her daily shower. The cuffs are removed once she’s in the shower room. The only other time she isn’t cuffed is when she’s in her Spartan 12-by-9-foot cell, where she spends about 16 hours a day.
The door of her cell is solid steel, with a 6-by-9-inch window. It has
a slot used by corrections officers to slide her three meals a day on a
plastic tray. Each time she leaves her cell, she must first extend her
arms through the slot to be handcuffed.
Gissendaner is accustomed to the stares from other inmates as she is
led through the prison in handcuffs, whether it’s to the infirmary, a
worship service, Bible study, the gymnasium or recreation yard. On a
recent weekday, she joked with the guards accompanying her as she
walked outside to a creative writing class in the gym. The smell of
fresh-cut grass in the hot summer air contrasted with the stale air of
D Building, her home.
An orderly existence
Everything she owns is contained in a small metal wall locker with no
doors. It holds her shampoo, soap, deodorant and other toiletries. She
keeps snacks in the locker: kosher dill pickles, Cheetos and saltine
crackers. She is allowed 10 music CDs that she can listen to on a
personal player with headphones. Albums by rocker Melissa Etheridge,
Atlanta R&B artist Usher and „American Idol“ winner Ruben Studdard are
in her small collection.
The furniture in her cell is made of welded steel and is bolted to the
floor. Her metal bed has a sleeping bag-thin mattress. A stainless
steel toilet and sink are attached to the cinder-block walls.
She has a 13-inch Sanyo TV set in her cell. It’s unusual for an inmate
to have a television in a cell. The men on death row in Jackson share a
television that they watch through the bars of their cells. But given
Gissendaner’s unique status, prison officials allow the television. She
likes reality shows. Her favorites include „Fear Factor,“ „CSI: Crime
Scene Investigation“ and „Big Brother.“
Awakened at 5 a.m. daily, Gissendaner spends an hour every day in the
recreation yard, where she usually walks around a track. All other
inmates at Metro are removed from the yard before she goes outside.
A prison recreation employee spends an hour with her three times a
week. Sometimes they play cards or bingo, listen to music or perform
calisthenics. Recently, Gissendaner quietly sang along to „The Thunder
Rolls,“ a song about marital infidelity, by country singer Garth Brooks
as she played rummy with Michael Sean Hendrix, whom she calls „Coach.“
The activities are designed to keep prisoners busy and sane. They also
help prison officials keep inmates out of trouble. „You know what they
say: An idle mind is the devil’s playground,“ Gissendaner said with a
At 4 p.m., she goes back into her cell for the remainder of the day.
Sometimes she reads books by crime writers such as Patricia Cornwell
and Stuart Woods. Sometimes she writes poetry or letters to friends,
relatives or other inmates she’s met in prison. Sometimes she watches
She always thinks of her three children, 18, 14 and 10 years old. The
two younger ones live with her mother; the older boy lives with her
Gissendaner insists that she is still a mother to her children. By
telephone, she praises them for good grades or hitting a home run.
“I really enjoy my time with them,“ she said of the kids’ twice-monthly
visits to the prison. „It’s been hard seeing them grow through the
years and me not being there. But they still know I’m Mom.
“Once you’re on death row, the outside world looks at us as monsters,“
she said. „And we’re not. We’re human, just like anybody else. We have
feelings. We have families.“
Gissendaner has grown accustomed to solitude. She’s not sure she wants company on death row.
“I’m so used to being by myself, used to my privacy. But at the same
time, it’d be nice to have somebody up here that went to rec with me,
went to the gym with me.“
She believes that being the lone woman on Georgia’s death row could
work to her advantage, noting the highly publicized, though
unsuccessful, efforts to stop Texas’ 1998 execution of Karla Faye
Tucker, who became a born-again Christian in prison. „If you add
another person up here, it’s easier to execute one of us,“ she said.
“You can execute them [men] and execute them and nobody notices. It happens so much with the men that society starts to ignore it.“
She is surprisingly upbeat for someone facing lethal injection. She
laughs a lot. She kids about her last meal.
“Anything I can possibly eat, I’m going to eat,“ she laughed,
mentioning steak, lobster, hamburgers, french fries and ice cream as
possible menu candidates. „If I ever get to that point, I’m going to go
out fat and happy.“
But she is under no delusions about her future.
“Every day that’s there, that’s in the back of my mind,“ she said of
her unscheduled execution date. „Every day that’s a reality—I’m
either one step closer to my case being overturned or one step closer
to laying on that gurney.“
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