Not In My Name

by Joe Thomas

I am writing this as my state prepares to execute yet another person in my name, a person that I never asked to be executed.

Kelly Gissendaner’s story has received attention in the last few days for a myriad of reasons. It will, barring a miracle, be the first time the State of Georgia has executed a woman since 1945. It will be the first time since capital punishment was reopened as a form of punishment in 1976 that Georgia has put a person who did not commit the accused act of violence to death. At time when forward-thinking states across the country are using more and more scrutiny when it comes to the death penalty, Ms. Gissendaner’s execution is another in a troubling string by the State of Georgia that seem like an acceleration, rather than a careful reexamination.

These historical benchmarks do not address the more personal nature of Kelly Gissendaner’s time spent on death row. Having expressed her responsibility for her crime, and her abject sorrow and remorse for what she did, Ms. Gissendaner made her imprisonment into what should be a celebrated example of redemption and rehabilitation. Through her own efforts, and those of the remarkable leaders of the prison theology program from which Ms. Gissendaner graduated a few years ago, she has become a light of hope, strength, and inspiration to other inmates, to the correctional officers charged with her supervision, and to people across Georgia and the United States who look for brief instances of success in a prison system that is rife with corruption, violence, greed, abuse, and general ineptitude.

What do we then accomplish by executing Kelly Gissendaner? We take away hope from people who are trying to change their lives. We show that the clemency process is nothing but a charade, a way for the State to say that the process ran its course. We make Ms. Gissendaner’s children, who have suffered and then watched their mother grow and become a new person, victims anew. We once again ignore the thousands of voices in this state who cry out during every execution “Not in my name!” And we prolong a system that claims to be built on rehabilitation, but increasingly in Georgia seems to instead be built on publicity, revenge, and a cheap claim at the falsehood of deterrence.

I am heartbroken and angry today, because of my state’s actions. But I am also heartened by the potential displayed by the citizens of Georgia who call out for Kelly Gissendaner to be shown mercy. I am heartened by the letters and calls made by the incredible array of religious leaders from all backgrounds who are holding up Ms. Gissendaner as an example of what can be good about what we do to help people. And I am heartened by Kelly Gissendaner herself, who has shown us all that despite our pasts, and in the face of death, we can all be redeemed and shine as a beacon of hope and strength.