Georgia's Only Woman On Death Row Sues Over 'Mortal Fear' During Delayed Execution

03/12/2015 10:54 am ET
Georgia Department of Corrections

A "botched" execution caused the only woman on Georgia's death row to endure 13 hours of “immense mental anxiety” and "mortal fear" -- and was heinous enough to make a future execution unnecessarily cruel and therefore unconstitutional, the woman's lawyers argue in a new lawsuit against the state.

In a scathing complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on Monday, attorneys for death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner slammed the Georgia Department of Corrections for secretive execution protocols and "dithering" indecision that led Gissendaner's execution to be delayed indefinitely on the night it was scheduled.

"Ms. Gissendaner endured hours of unconstitutional torment and uncertainty –- to which she had not been sentenced –- while Defendants dithered about whether they could execute her," they wrote.

Gissendaner's death by lethal injection was scheduled for 7 p.m. on March 2, but hours passed that night without confirmation trickling from the prison. Former corrections officials previously told HuffPost that executions are supposed to last minutes, with personnel and witnesses typically in and out of the death chamber in 30-45 minutes under ideal circumstances.

Lindsay Bennett, Gissendaner's lawyer, said in a signed declaration that she received the first of three phone calls at 10:19 p.m., from a senior assistant attorney general telling her the execution was "off" for the night because the lethal injection drugs appeared "cloudy." After relaying that news to Gissendaner and her family, Bennett received another call 10 minutes later telling her there'd been confusion about which drugs had been examined for use, and another batch of the lethal injection cocktail might be available for the execution to go forward. Bennett said she was called again at 10:43 p.m. and told the execution was definitely off for that evening because a pharmacist expressed concern that the drugs would not be "appropriate for medical purposes."

A GDOC spokeswoman announced shortly after 10 p.m. that the execution was postponed over "cloudy" drugs but did not elaborate or take questions. The following day, an official statement chalked the delay up to "an abundance of caution" and stated that a new date would be set "when the Department is prepared to proceed."

Invoking the bloody, botched execution by lethal injection of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett in 2014, Gissendaner's attorneys are now asking the court to stop the GDOC from proceeding with an execution until the state can prove there won't be such risks of delays, error or malfunction going forward.

"This Court must intervene, lest [the GDOC] be permitted to rubber-stamp their own demonstrably-defective processes and again resume executions behind a veil of secrecy," the complaint states. Georgia does not make public several execution protocols including how a mix of the lethal injection drug will be tested and who will administer such tests.

Attorneys for Gissendaner, 47, say the agony of the indecision and waiting was a “great increase” of her punishment and noted "she has no remedy for that violation."

GDOC Commissioner Homer Bryson, Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison Warden Bruce Chatman and others named as defendants in the suit have 21 days to respond.

Gissendaner was sentenced to death 18 years ago, when a jury convicted her of plotting with her boyfriend to kill her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. She has admitted her guilt and apologized to her family, and supporters have fought for clemency, arguing that she has been reformed while in prison, even earning aearned her theology degree theology degree through a prison educational program.

A spokesman for the Georgia DOC did not immediately responded to The Huffington Post's requests for comment; Gissendaner's attorney's declined to speak publicly.

Also on HuffPost:

    South Carolina Department of Corrections
    NAME: Edward Lee Elmore
    STATE: South Carolina
    RELEASED IN 2002

    In 1982, Dorothy Edwards of Greenwood, South Carolina, an elderly white woman beloved by her community, was brutally murdered and raped in her home. Edwards' neighbor offered up Elmore, her handyman, as the perpetrator of the crime, even as he maintained his innocence. Elmore was arrested, went to trial 82 days later, and received a death sentence -- a conviction that he received three times as appeal courts overturned each verdict. The case was riddled with bad (even planted) evidence, an incompetent defense, a tainted crime scene, and police coverups. He spent 29 years on death row until his defense argued that he was mentally disabled and legally could not be executed, so he was reduced to a life sentence. In 2002 -- 29 years later -- he pled guilty to murder in exchange for release.

    Check out CNN's original series "Death Row Stories" (Sundays 9pm ET/PT) for a deeper look into this case.
    NAME: Krishna Maharaj
    STATE: Florida

    One-time millionaire and business magnate Kris Maharaj was convicted on two counts of murder in 1987. The case was plagued by covered-up evidence, false eyewitness accounts, and a shoddy defense (who didn't call any of his many witnesses to the stand as a "tactical" maneuver). Clive Stafford Smith has worked on this case for years, and in 2002, succeeded in commuting Maharaj’s death sentence to a life term following serious misconduct on the part of the judge and prosecution. Smith continues to fight for Maharaj's release, saying: “It is unfathomable to most rational people that the US Supreme Court says that innocence is not a reason to set a prisoner free. That Kris has spent 10,000 days in prison for a crime he did not commit is little more than legal kidnapping.”

    Check out CNN's original series "Death Row Stories" (Sundays 9pm ET/PT) for a deeper look into this case.
    Florida Department of Corrections
    NAME: Manuel Valle
    STATE: Florida
    EXECUTED: 9/28/11
    LAST MEAL: Fried chicken breast, white rice, garlic toast, peach cobbler and a Coca-Cola.

    Manuel Valle killed a police officer in Coral Gables, Florida, in 1978 after being stopped for a traffic violation. In the dissenting opinion of Valle v. Florida, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer stated that the inmate's long stay on death row amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. He said, "I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death."
    Georgia Department of Corrections
    NAME: Jack Alderman
    STATE: Georgia
    EXECUTED: 9/16/08
    LAST MEAL: Did not request a last meal. Ate regular prison meal of baked fish, peas, cole slaw, carrots, cheese grits, bun, fruit juice and chocolate cake.

    Jack Alderman was convicted in 1975 of killing his wife, Barbara Jean Alderman. At the time of his execution, he was the longest-serving death row prisoner who had been executed in the United States.
    Texas Department of Criminal Justice
    NAME: David Lee Powell
    STATE: Texas
    EXECUTED: 6/15/2010
    LAST MEAL: Four eggs, four chicken drumsticks, salsa, four jalapeno peppers, lettuce, tortillas, hashbrowns, garlic bread, two pork chops, white and yellow grated cheese, sliced onions and tomatoes, a pitcher of milk and a vanilla shake.

    In May 1978, Powell fatally shot 26-year-old Austin police officer Ralph Ablanedo 10 times after he and his girlfriend were pulled over for missing a rear license plate. The two were on the way to a drug deal at the time of the crime. Opponents to his execution cited his exemplary behavior in prison and argued that he was no longer a threat to society, which is a legal requirement for capital punishment. Thirty-one years, three trials, and multiple appeals later, he died by lethal injection.

    He spent the longest time on death row of anyone in Texas since the state resumed death penalty executions in 1982.
    NAME: Gary Alvord
    STATE: Florida
    EXECUTED: Died of brain tumor in 2013

    In 1974, Gary Alvord was sentenced to death for strangling three women in their home in Tampa, Florida after he escaped from a mental hospital. Although Alvord faced execution several times, his history of mental illness prevented the sentence from being carried out. Last year, after 43 years on death row, he died of natural causes. In the time he spent awaiting execution, 74 other inmates were sent to their deaths. Bill Sheppard, who represented Alvord, has said: “Gary is a product of a sick system. He was a living example of why we should not have the death penalty.... I would love for the state of Florida to tell us how much money they wasted trying to kill a guy they couldn't kill."
    Death Penalty Information Center
    NAME: Reginald Griffin
    STATE: Missouri

    Reginald Griffin was implicated in the 1983 stabbing death of a fellow inmate at the Moberly Correctional Center in Moberly, Missouri, where he was serving time for an armed assault conviction. He along with two other inmates were charged with capital murder in 1987. There was no physical evidence linking Griffin to the crime, and in subsequent trials, the two inmates who served as witnesses for the prosecution in were offered benefits to testify. In 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court found that the state had withheld critical evidence and overturned Griffin's conviction. In 2013, all charges were dismissed. Upon his release, Cindy Short, one of his attorneys, said: "We humans are flawed, and those flaws have led to wrongful arrests, wrongful convictions and, unfortunately, this situation where time and time again you see prosecutors holding onto cases, even when evidence of innocence is clear."
    NAME: Michael Selsor
    STATE: Oklahoma
    EXECUTED: 5/1/12
    LAST MEAL: Kentucky Fried Chicken’s crispy two breast and one wing meal with potato wedges and baked beans, a chicken thigh, apple turnover, two biscuits and honey, salt, pepper and ketchup.

    In 1975, Michael Selsor shot gas-station clerk Clayton Chandler six times during a robbery in Tulsa, Oklahoma along with his accomplice, Richard Eugene Dodson. Although he was tried by a jury and sentenced to death in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court and Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the death penalty unconstitutional later that year. Selsor's conviction was overturned by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996; however, his 1998 retrial ended in another death sentence. After 36 years, Selsor was executed in Oklahoma by lethal injection.
Suggest a correction