Was the execution of Kelly Gissendaner a just result?

Early this morning, shortly after midnight, the state of Georgia put Kelly Gissendaner to death by lethal injection for her role in the murder of her husband Douglas in 1997. This came on the heels of multiple appeals and exhortations from outside voices ranging from civil rights groups to the Pope himself. In the end, the sentence was carried out anyway. (USA Today)

Convicted murder conspirator Kelly Renee Gissendaner was put to death by lethal injection at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday, despite a flurry of last-ditch efforts to stay the execution.

Lawyers for the only woman on Georgia’s death row filed multiple appeals with high courts of both the United States and the state of Georgia. Gissendaner, 47 and a mother of three, was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday evening for her role in the 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner…

Around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, a third appeal to the United States Supreme Court was denied, paving the way for the execution at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson to proceed.

This particular execution carried with it more than the usual number of questions and protests for a couple of different reasons. The first and most obvious one is that Gissendaner was a woman and we are, as a society, a bit more loathe to execute females. That really shouldn’t have any impact on the decision from a clinical, legal perspective, but I do understand the reluctance which comes from somewhere deep in our hind brains. But the second question question deals with Kelly’s role in the murder since she wasn’t actually the one who did the deed. She arranged to have her boyfriend do it. Gregory Owen – Gisendaner’s lover – did the actual stabbing and was previously convicted, but he cut a deal with prosecutors to get a reduced sentence.

All of this prompted CNN’s Jake Tapper to ask the following question on Twitter this morning:

It’s a fair question I suppose. If we look at this case in a vacuum it should certainly be disturbing to learn that the guy who stuck the knife in Doug Gisendaner will be eligible for parole in seven years and his girlfriend – who only showed up at the scene of the crime after her husband was dead – is in a body bag. Shouldn’t the person who did the actual killing be at least as culpable as his co-conspirator?

In an ideal world the answer would be yes, but we’re stuck living in the real world. It sounds like the case against Kelly Gisendaner was going to be on shaky ground without the cooperation of Owen. But with his full testimony and compliance they were able to get the conviction, so that meant that the prosecutor had to cut a deal. A good attorney might have been able to argue for a somewhat lesser charge than first degree murder for Owen to begin with so it wasn’t like the death penalty for him was a sure bet, nor even life without parole if he cut a deal for aggravated manslaughter or something along those lines. By turning state’s evidence he was apparently able to get a deal that could put him back on the streets before he was an old man.

So to answer Jake’s question… is that justice? It may not be satisfying, but it’s probably as close as we’re going to get. She was the mastermind behind this plot. Absent getting his girlfriend all to himself Owen had no real reason to kill the husband. It was she who drove the act and robbed the Gisendaner family of their loved one even though she didn’t wield the knife herself. On some level it’s similar to a mafia case where the state really wants to go after the boss who orders the hits more than the henchmen who pull the trigger in each murder.

The jury was satisfied with the facts of the case as presented. I won’t allow the fact that Kelly was a woman to shift my thinking on this one. She was the real killer of her husband and Owen was essentially just the tool she chose to make it happen. The sentence he’ll wind up serving is definitely too light, but it’s the price we chose to pay to put the real killer in the grave.