I, like so many others in Georgia and around the world, found myself wrapped up in the saga of Kelly Gissendaner this week. Kelly was the only woman on death row in Georgia and the first women executed here in 70 years.
Kelly was sentenced to death for plotting the death of her husband Doug. (The man who killed him took a plea deal and was given life in prison with a chance at parole.) Her execution, delayed from earlier this year after problems with the lethal injection drugs, was still up in the air to the last minute as her lawyers and family used every appeal they could and protesters and supporters stood on the streets and on social media holding out hope that there may be one last stay.
Her story became a rallying cry for those against the death penalty, especially many Christian voices, because Kelly was said to be changed woman. She had accepted Christ in prison. While there she began a ministry to her fellow inmates and helped talk many of them out of suicide.
My heart broke to hear Kelly’s children had to choose between seeing their mother one last time and testifying for one last chance at an appeal. It was hard not to get emotional to read about Kelly singing Amazing Grace in her final few moments on Earth, her voice shaking in fear but resolute in her salvation.
My heart also broke to read about the family of Doug Gissendaner, Kelly’s ex-husband whose murder she plotted. This family has been struggling with a devastating loss for 20 years and will never fully recover from it. It seems they just wanted an end to the whole saga and to hopefully experience a pale shadow of justice.
I wouldn’t say I’m pro or anti death penalty. (There’s a reason I started a pop culture blog and not a political one.) Of course I don’t find any joy in seeing anyone’s life end prematurely. Who am I or any of us to judge when another human being should be put to death?
But I also feel there should be consequences for our actions. And I believe we live in a broken world where people commit heinous crimes, and sometimes the worst of those can result in the most severe of punishments.
There aren’t easy answers when it comes to capital punishment. While it’s easy to take sides in a social media argument I don’t think the issue can be simplified to a fit inside a tweet.
As Christians we may abhor the idea of executing our fellow man. Yet the reality is our government and our legal system does not have to answer to God. Instead it works to protect society as a whole and keep our world in balance. Though it may or may not work the way it was intended to, the death penalty is the way our society has chosen to do that.
Whether you think Kelly Gissendaner deserved to die for her actions is up to you. I personally don’t think she is a martyr or a hero or a victim or a villain. I think she was a human being just like all of us – deeply flawed yet still capable of doing good things for her fellow man. I believe she made a mistake – a severe and tragic one – and because of that she faced punishment, a punishment she knew she was at the risk of facing when she denied a plea deal and faced a trial.
In the end I don’t think it’s an accident that Kelly Gissendaner died exactly when she did in exactly the fashion that she did. I believe she’s with God now and I believe He is holding her in His arms. I believe at the same time God is watching over her family, just as He watches over her slain husband’s family, and the men who put her to death, and all of us who watched the whole ordeal broken-hearted and angry and numb and confused.
I believed God used Kelly’s life and her choices as a free woman and in prison and in death and that every moment was in His hands and will continue to be. I believe she found forgiveness in the Lord. I believe her life will live on in those lives she touched for many years to come.
I do think it’s sad that now that Kelly’s story is over the debate over the death penalty will fall to the wayside. (Her name has already fallen off the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution website, not 24 hours after her last breath.) By the weekend most of us will have forgotten the issue and we’ll move on with our lives until the next story comes along that sparks some sort of temporary social unrest.
In the end I’m not sure I have any more answers about the death penalty than I did before I heard about Kelly Gissendaner. But I think what I’ve learned from this story is this: We are all, each one of us, capable of hurting our fellow man in the worst way. We are all, each one of us, also capable of compassion for those who have committed these crimes. And we are all, each one of us, capable of redemption in the eyes of the Lord.
I guess what I’m saying through all of this is I don’t really know what we’re supposed to learn or how we’re all supposed to feel about Kelly Gissendaner and the death penalty. I just know that we can’t ignore it.
Feel free to join the conversation and share your thoughts below on the Kelly Gissendaner story and the death penalty: