James Oglethorpe barred Catholics from the penal colony he established in Savannah in 1733, so he might have been pleased with yesterday’s BBC headline: “Georgia rebuffs pope over Kelly Gissendaner execution.” Who cares what Rome wants?
On the other hand, Oglethorpe was a reformer who believed that miscreants deserved a chance to turn their lives around. So he might have applauded Pope Francis for telling Congress last week that the obligation “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” had not only led him to advocate for the global abolition of the death penalty but also to take the position “that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
However, the rehabilitation of prisoners on death row is not something Georgia’s latter-day Board of Pardons and Paroles is interested in, in my experience. Twenty-four years ago I was writing editorials for the Atlanta Constitution when Warren McCleskey was executed. McCleskey had participated in an armed robbery during which police officer Frank Schlatt was shot to death. He’d become a model prisoner and the evidence that he was the man who pulled the trigger was tainted. (The three other robbers avoided the death penalty.)
There were national and international calls for his sentence to be commuted. What I remember is fielding a call from a reader angry at an editorial I wrote. So what if there were good reasons to mitigate the punishment? A cop had died. Someone had to pay with his life. McCleskey had drawn the short straw.
As with McCleskey, so with Gissendaner. In 1997, she arranged for her former boyfriend to murder her husband, and he stabbed him to death. The Gwinnett County D.A. sought the death penalty for her but not for him, and she got it. Eighteen years later she showed every sign of having rehabilitated herself. She embraced the Christian faith and earned a theology degree. She provided solace to fellow prisoners and helped them become better people.
Innumerable outsiders, including former U.S. Attorney and GOP congressman Bob Barr, the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, four sitting judges, and many clergy advocated on her behalf. There were reports that prison guards would have done the same had prison officials permitted them to do so.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles was unimpressed. Every court up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. So there it was. At 12:21 a.m. this morning Kelly Gissendamer was executed.
I confess that I am not as staunch an opponent of the death penalty as I might be. In one of the criminal cases I covered in Georgia, I would not have been upset if the head of a gang that raped and tortured two teenaged girls before murdering them had been sentenced to die, even though he had merely ordered and supervised the proceedings. (He pleaded guilty and got life without parole.)
But here’s the thing. These days, victim impact statements are supposed to count for something in our criminal justice system. In Georgia, the parole board prides itself on “its leadership role in the advocacy of victims’ rights,” and claims “to give the highest priority and greatest compassion to those citizens who are most affected by crime, the innocent victims and their survivors.”
Twenty-four years ago, the daughter of Officer Schlatt wanted Warren McCleskey executed. “I never got to say goodbye to my father,” said Jodie Schlatt Swanner. “This has nothing to do with vengeance. It has to do with justice.”
This year, Kelly Gissendaner’s children begged the board to have mercy on their mother. She had become a different person, become a real mother to them. They didn’t want the state to deprive them of their remaining parent. Watch the video and ask yourself how last night’s execution gave them the highest priority and greatest compassion. To say nothing of protecting and defending human life at every stage of its development. To say nothing of justice.