Open Letter to Gov. Nathan Deal Regarding Kelly Gissendaner From a Catholic Theologian

03/02/2015 12:48 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Dear Governor Deal (and Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole):

As ​a ​Catholic ​moral ​theologian ​ (and a former corrections officer and reserve police officer)​, ​I​ wish to go on record in requesting that you grant a stay of execution (and commute her sentence) for Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled for execution in Georgia on Monday night, March 2nd. In my past experience in law enforcement and in lay ecclesial ministry, I knew first hand murderers, victims of murder, and families of the murdered. As a Catholic theologian, I agree with the teaching of recent popes and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the death penalty.

Sixteen years ago, while visiting St. Louis, Pope John Paul II--now Saint John Paul--asked then-Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, and the governor complied with his request. Moreover, John Paul called for the abolition of the death penalty:

The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. --Pope John Paul II, January 27, 1999, St. Louis, Missouri

Current Catholic teaching views executions carried out by state authorities as morally justified if it is "the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church adds:

"Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm -- without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself -- the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'" (quoting John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 56).

​The execution of Kelly Gissendaner is not necessary for the protection of the citizens of Georgia (or for the protection of the officers, staff, or fellow inmates at the prison). Nor does it make up for the horrible crime that she admits she committed.​ All persons, we Christians believe, are made in the image of God -- not only the victims of violent crime and their family members, who definitely need our love and support, but also the murderers, for even perpetrators are persons.

As Saint John Paul II put it, "Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this" (Evangelium vitae, 9). No one is beyond God's redemption. Ms. Gissendaner has studied theology while in prison; she is a mentor to other prisoners; she is a peacemaker behind bars. I have known inmates who seemed to me to be "playing religion," but her story seems genuine, in my view. While justice must be done, may it be tempered with mercy. Please do not execute Ms. Gissendaner.

Tobias Winright