Georgia to execute its 1st female prisoner in 70 years

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Kelly Gissendaner

Not since Lena Baker, an African-American convicted of murder in Randolph County, has Georgia executed a woman. The state is scheduled to snap that 70-year streak on Wednesday.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 47, was convicted in a February 1997 murder plot that targeted her husband in suburban Atlanta.

Gissendaner was romantically involved with Gregory Owen and conspired with the 43-year-old to have her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, killed, according to court testimony. Owen wanted Kelly Gissendaner to file for a divorce, but she was concerned that her husband would “not leave her alone if she simply divorced him,” court documents said.

The Gissendaners had already divorced once, in 1993, and they remarried in 1995.

Nightstick and hunting knife

Details of the crime, as laid out at trial and provided by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, are as follows:

Owen and Kelly Gissendaner planned the murder for months. On February 7, 1997, she dropped Owen off at her home, gave him a nightstick and hunting knife and went out dancing with girlfriends.

Douglas Gissendaner also spent the evening away from home, going to a church friend’s house to work on cars. Owen lay in wait until he returned.

When Douglas Gissendaner came home around 11:30 p.m., Owen forced him by knifepoint into a car and drove him to a remote area of Gwinnett County.

There, Owen ordered his victim into the woods, took his watch and wallet to make it look like a robbery, hit him in the head with the nightstick and stabbed Douglas Gissendaner in the neck eight to 10 times.

Kelly Gissendaner arrived just as the murder took place but did not immediately get out of her car. She later checked on her husband to make sure he was dead, then Owen followed her in Douglas Gissendaner’s car to retrieve a can of kerosene that Kelly Gissendaner had left for him.

Owen set her husband’s car on fire in an effort to hide evidence, and left the scene with Kelly Gissendaner.

Story unravels

Police discovered the burned-out automobile the morning after the murder but did not find the body. Authorities kicked off a search.

Kelly Gissendaner, meanwhile, went on local television appealing to the public for information on her husband’s whereabouts.

Her and Owen’s story started to unravel after a series of police interviews. On February 20, Douglas Gissendaner’s face-down body was found about a mile from his car. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be knife wounds to the neck, but the medical examiner couldn’t tell which strike killed Douglas Gissendaner because animals had devoured the skin and soft tissue on the right side of his neck.

On February 24, Owen confessed to the killing and implicated Kelly Gissendaner, who was arrested the next day and charged.

While in jail awaiting trial, Kelly Gissendaner grew angry when she heard Owen was to receive a 25-year sentence for his role in the murder. (Owen is serving life in prison at a facility in Washington state, according to Georgia Department of Corrections records).

She began writing letters to hire a third person who would falsely confess to taking her to the crime scene at gunpoint.

She asked her cellmate, Laura McDuffie, to find someone willing to do the job for $10,000, and McDuffie turned Kelly Gissendaner’s letters over to authorities via her attorney.

Clemency to be considered Tuesday

Kelly Gissendaner has exhausted all state and federal appeals, the attorney general said in a statement. The State Board of Pardons and Paroles will consider a clemency request Tuesday.

For her last meal, she’s requested an extravagant one: two Burger King Whoppers with cheese (with everything), two large orders of fries, popcorn, cornbread, a side of buttermilk and a salad with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, carrots, cheese, boiled eggs and Paul Newman buttermilk dressing, CNN affiliate WGCL-TV in Atlanta reported. She also requested a glass of lemonade and cherry-vanilla ice cream for dessert.

Kelly Gissendaner is currently the only woman on Georgia’s death row. She would be the first woman executed in the state since Baker in 1945. Only 15 women have been executed in the United States since 1977, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.