Reflections on Kelly Gissendaner

On the morning of Friday January 23, 2015, I and Reforming Arts volunteer, Katherine Perry, walked into our poetry classroom at Lee Arrendale State Prison and were greeted by the words, “they are going to kill Kelly on February 10th.” Our students did not have time to say hello, they needed to know if we had more information, if it was true that the state was going to kill their friend. That and the classes that followed  have been difficult because Kelly is loved and admired inside that prison, especially by the women who spend their Friday’s taking college level classes from Reforming Arts and the Theology program. Kelly was scheduled to die on February 25th. She was denied clemency on February 25th. Her execution was delayed because of the weather; barring a miracle she will be murdered by lethal injection on Monday, March 2, 2015 at 7:00 PM.

I am adamantly opposed to the death penalty for both humanitarian and religious reasons. This is not the position of Reforming Arts but rather my personal belief. I believe the death penalty is absolutely wrong in all circumstances regardless of the crime, guilt, considerations of salvation or redemption, or even the consent of the accused.  From the Governor’s Office to the Board of Pardons and Parole to the Department of Corrections the rhetoric in Georgia is all about evidence based studies and criminal justice reform. They also talk about rehabilitation – A LOT. Evidence based studies repeatedly prove that the death penalty DOES NOT deter crime or reduce crime rates. In fact the excessive cost of placing someone on death row hinders spending on crime prevention and rehabilitation efforts. Despite these facts Georgia continues to not only execute people but to also execute people whose guilt is suspect, who are intellectually disabled, and who are mentally ill. Since December the state has been executing people in suspicious ways using drugs that they have classified as “state secrets.” Within this context it is easy to understand the State’s determination to kill Kelly Gissendaner this coming Monday, March 2 at 7:00 PM, despite their supposed belief in reform and redemption.

I have not always been opposed to the death penalty. In my youth and early adulthood I was very angry and believed in the harsh treatment of criminal and prisoners. My father has been in and out of jail and prison since I was a toddler. He is currently serving a 40 year sentence in Texas and has been continuously incarcerated, except for 9 months, since 1986. I grew up very angry at my dad, I hated him for being a criminal, I hated him for the shame I felt, I hated him for my mom’s hardships. By 30 years of age I had let go of a lot of that anger, by 35 I was ready to forgive my dad. In 2009 I sat outside of the Texas “death house” talking to my dad about his crime, his sentence, and the death penalty. (You can read more about that here.) During that conversation I realized that my dad was not a monster, that he could not be summed up by his crimes. In fact he was brilliant, he was human, and he was my dad. While sitting outside of that death house talking to my dad about his relief when the jury gave him 40 years verses the death penalty–as the prosecutor requested–all remnants of hatred and need for revenge evaporated. My path of seeking compassion began.

The death penalty is about hatred and revenge, it is destructive to all that it touches, it is death to the condemned and to the society that supports it. Compassion and forgiveness is life for both the giver and the receiver. I am now adamantly opposed to the death penalty, it was not an easy conclusion to come to, in fact it was very difficult. I began teaching Theatre and American Studies classes at Lee Arrendale shortly after that visit with my dad. It has been through these classes that I have learned true compassion and I learned that no one can be summed up by the worst thing they have ever done. It is also through these classes that I met Kelly Gissendaner.

The master narrative about Kelly has been about her crime and her last meal request. The focus on her crime is an effort to justify state sanctioned killing and to continue the perception of her as a “black widow.” The focus on her last meal request is simply ridiculous, fat shaming, nonsense. Because for the last six years I have volunteered inside the prison where Kelly is held, I could talk about how being a “black widow” is the worst thing a woman can be in Georgia; how a man was given clemency last year because he only conspired to commit murder, but did not commit murder; how most of the women serving life without possibility of parole in Georgia are there for conspiracy to commit murder, not murder; how fantasizing about food is the number one pastime in a women’s prison. But instead I am going to talk about Kelly’s transformation. Kelly has never taken one of my classes, she is enrolled in the Theology program sponsored by the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Therefore I only saw her in the hall as she went to and from class. I was inspired by those brief interactions and I realized that she was an intelligent, compassionate woman that cared deeply about education and helping others. By all accounts from the volunteers and  students of the theology program, and Kelly’s own words, Kelly is a redeemed woman. I believe in redemption. I also believe in transformation and whether Kelly’s transformation came from the rigorous curriculum of an outstanding college level learning experience that focuses on critical thinking and self-evaluation, or a divine being working in her life, Kelly is changed. Kelly is brilliant. Kelly is human. Kelly is worthy of love, forgiveness, grace, and compassion.

I do not understand the Parole Board’s decision to not grant Kelly clemency. I know how hard it is

for a child to forgive a parent they believe has wronged them. Kelly’s children have forgiven her. Kelly is a positive influence in a very dysfunctional place. Nothing will be gained from her death, it will only bring further loss. The only reason to kill Kelly is for hatred and revenge. Hatred and revenge equals death to all that it touches. Kelly’s children have chosen forgiveness and compassion, they have chosen life and light. The Parole Board chose death, hatred, and revenge.

But there is still hope. Consider how you can give your body for Kelly. Read these stories about Kelly, Meeting Kelly Gissendaner, Go and Sin No More,  Thinking…Kelly, and A Death Row Inmate. Share these and your own stories using #kellyonmymind. Support organizations like Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Open Door Community, and the Southern Center for Human Rights. Show up for the rally/vigil on Monday on the front steps of the Capitol.