Theologians Call for Clemency for Death Row Inmate

Execution scheduled for Monday, March 2, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Theologians from various traditions and from around the world have joined together in an effort to gain clemency for death row inmate—and fellow theologian—Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed by the State of Georgia on Monday, March 2, 2015. They are pointing to Gissendaner’s remarkable story of redemption, hope, and transformation, and calling for the state to extend mercy.

About 100 theologians have written letters, joining another 500 clergy and religious leaders who have signed a petition, calling for Gissendaner’s life to be spared. Spearheaded by Dr. Jennifer McBride, Regents Chair of Ethics at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, who was Gissendaner’s theology professor, the clemency effort is supported by influential figures such as Desmond Tutu, Barbara Brown Taylor, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and heads of seminaries and leading theologians at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Europe, including Harvard University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Emory University, Regis College, Mercer University, University of Cambridge, England, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, University of Zurich, and many more.

Gissendaner, who completed a theology studies program while in prison, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998 for persuading her boyfriend to kill her husband, Douglas. Gissendaner has admitted her guilt and expressed remorse, and by all accounts has undergone a profound transformation while in prison.

Kelly Gissendaner

Theologians are asking for clemency for the first woman scheduled to be executed in Georgia.

New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer told Gissendaner’s story in his February 28 column, “A Death Row Inmate Finds Common Ground with Theologians,” recounting her studies with Dr. McBride, who taught theology courses to female inmates in Georgia prisons, and her friendship with noted theologian Jürgen Moltmann.

The petition and letters emphasize principles of mercy and redemption, and point out that the Catholic Church and all mainline Protestant denominations reject the use of capital punishment. They reassert the evidence for Gissendaner’s radical change— that Kelly’s time in prison and faith in God have changed her and she is no longer the person she was 18 years ago when she asked her boyfriend to kill her husband. Those who know her describe a woman of generosity and compassion.

The visible, concrete fruit of her transformation are in the lives of all the people she reaches that no one else can: the at-risk youth she mentors, the suicide attempts she has averted, and the many inmates in despair to whom she has offered pastoral care. Prison guards and wardens esteem her as a calming influence on inmates who contributes to building a respectful and peaceful atmosphere in the prison.

“Indeed, it is the vast moral distance between her crime and the life she now leads that counsels against despair. If the life even of a convicted murderer can be turned around and so radically redirected, then none of us is without hope,” wrote Richard Amesbury of the University of Zurich.

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