RELIGION

Religious Leaders See Delayed Execution As Act Of God

03/03/2015 06:52 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015
Kelly Gissendaner - kellyonmymind/ Facebook

Kelly Gissendaner was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Monday night, and would have become the first woman to receive the death penalty in Georgia in 70 years.

A crowd of supporters gathered outside the prison in Jackson where Gissendaner was being held. Kara Tragesser, Gissendaner's friend and former fellow inmate, joined the group. As the minutes passed, Tragesser said one of her friend's attorneys came out of the prison with Gissendaner on the phone. The group sang "This Little Light Of Mine," and Tragesser remembers Gissendaner singing along. It started raining, but the crowd refused to budge. At 7 p.m., they bowed their heads in prayer.

It wasn't until much later into the night that Gissendaner's supporters heard the news.

The 46-year-old mother's death had been delayed due to an "abundance of caution," reportedly because corrections officials found that the sample of the lethal pentobarbital drug they had been planning to use appeared cloudy. It was the second time Gissendaner's execution had been halted: She was originally scheduled to die on Feb. 25, but the execution was postponed due to inclement weather.

But for Tragesser and the others in the crowd, the latest delay didn't feel like the result of a legal technicality. Standing outside the prison that night, she couldn't see it as anything but an act of God.

"I think all of us were just so wanting a miracle to happen. And a lot of the times when you want a miracle, it doesn't happen and you're disappointed," Tragesser told The Huffington Post. "But yesterday, it felt like God was real."

"I take the Georgia Department of Correction at its word that there was a problem with the drug which was to be used for the injection," said Jim Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners, a Christian organization focused on social justice. "However, I also believe in providence, and it seems to me that the fact that Kelly's execution has now been delayed twice -- first by weather, then last night by the injection appearing 'cloudy' -- could be God's way of giving everyone who is trying to save Kelly's life more time to do so."

Gissendaner's story has gripped religious leaders and death penalty opponents around the country. At the heart of the case is a woman who supporters say has become convinced of her guilt and experienced a radical spiritual transformation while on death row.

In 1998, a jury found Gissendaner guilty of plotting the death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. She was sentenced to death, while the man who committed the murder, her boyfriend Gregory Owen, accepted a life sentence with the possibility of parole. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles recently denied Gissendaner's clemency. Her lawyers argue that the death penalty is unfair in this instance -- especially since Owen will be up for parole in eight years.

While in prison, Gissendaner completed a theology studies program, even becoming pen pals with the renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann. She also acted as a spiritual adviser to fellow inmates.

"I hope that Kelly's story will show people across the country that personal transformation does happen," Wallis said, "and the death penalty is wrong because it denies fellow human beings that opportunity to repent and be transformed."

A special outpouring of support for Gissendaner has come from within her own state. About 500 Georgia clergy members have signed a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal (R), asking for Gissendaner's life to be spared.

Candlelight vigils were held in seminaries across the country on Monday night. A Groundswell campaign asking for Gissendaner's sentence to be commuted to life in prison had collected nearly 80,000 signatures by Tuesday morning.

Tragesser was one of those inmates whom Gissendaner helped.

"I was in a fight and went into lockdown," Tragesser recalled. "I was pretty much terrified of getting out [of prison] after 10 years, you get nervous about going home. But Kelly and I just talked for hours and she told me, 'There's so much in store for you, you gotta not fall into thinking negative things, to stay positive.'"

Gissendaner knew how to give hope to the people on the inside, Tragesser said, better than correctional officers or chaplains.

"You hear people from the top saying, 'You can't give up.' But they're going home every day. It doesn't have the same effect as Kelly saying, 'Listen, you can do better and you will do better,'" Tragesser said.

She added that she knows several women former inmates whom Gissendaner was able to coax out of committing suicide.

Gissendaner's execution warrant window ends on Wednesday and a new date for the execution hasn't yet been given. Her lawyers are now hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will grant a stay.

Dr. Jennifer McBride, Gissendaner's theology professor while in prison and a champion for her cause, is clinging to the hope for mercy.

"Obviously, Kelly is under tremendous stress. She remains faithful and in prayer for her children and for all who have been hurt by her crime," McBride told HuffPost in an email.

McBride is convinced that the show of support for Gissendaner is "not in vain."

"It is pushing people of faith, and Christians in particular, to re-examine the central tenants we proclaim about repentance, forgiveness, redemption, the bearing of fruit," she said. "My hope is for mercy -- that she may have the opportunity to continue to live among her fellow inmates and continue her work of encouragement, of reaching people that no one else can reach."

HuffPost reached out to other members of the faith community about their reactions to Gissendaner's renewed chance at life. Here's what they had to say:

Shane Claiborne, Christian activist and founding partner of The Simple Way: "Yesterday was a huge victory for life. For Kelly, but also for all those facing execution. It was also a victory for Jesus, and the Gospel which is about redemption and grace. One of the core truths of Christianity is that no person is beyond redemption. Kelly is a living testimony of that ... There is no doubt that we are at a historic moment for capital punishment in America, and Kelly's case shows us that ... What we have on our hands is nothing short of a new pro-life movement that is not just concerned about abortion but about every single thing that destroys the lives of human beings. We want to stop killing -- from ISIS to Texas -- and stand on the side of life. Every life matters -- Kelly Gissendaner. And you. And me."

Rabbi Peter S. Berg, The Temple, Atlanta, Georgia: "The faith community has come together to address this issue in a strong way. We have more than 400 clergy from the state of Georgia who have signed a letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and also the governor calling for a commutation. I don't have access to the details of why the execution was stopped -- but I do believe the pressure from clergy (of all faiths and political parties) has been extraordinary. This is because Kelly's transformation has been a spiritual one. She has shown mercy and repentance. And justice and mercy go hand in hand. It is certainly just, from our perspective, that Kelly spend the rest of her life in prison. And it is merciful to let her live."

Carol Howard Merritt, Presbyterian (USA) minister and author: "My prayer is that this delay will give Kelly Gissendaner a full taste of how many people she has inspired and how much love surrounds her ... I hope that her life will be saved. I hope the death penalty will be overturned. I hope that Kelly's story shines a bright light on our brutal inhumanity and inspires us -- on the outside -- to be better humans."

Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Congregation Bet Haverim, Atlanta, Georgia: "There are many clergy who say the death penalty should be abolished completely because it's not a fair institution. It makes it even more difficult when you have an inmate like Kelly, who clearly has been impacting people's lives and has expressed remorse. I think her life can be a testament to the fact that there are always possible redemptive moments for people and to deny that seems unfair and barbaric."

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