Witness to Kelly Gissendaner execution

AJC reporter Rhonda Cook recounts what it is like being in the death chamber when Kelly Renee Gissendaner is executed.

The singing is what I will always remember about the execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner.

Her voice was joyful and light as she sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” By the second verse, though, the 47-year-old dying woman struggled to sing as the lethal injection drug took hold.

I was left with the thought that her song was to remind witnesses to her execution of how she saw her life — a murderer who plotted her husband’s death, and then spent her final years in prison practicing Christian ways.

I have been a media witness for 14 executions in Georgia — 13 by lethal injection and one by electrocution, 13 men and one woman.

For the most part, there is a sameness about the executions I have seen. I remember the details on only a few of them. But this one was different.

There were numerous court filings and pleas from supporters in the days before Gissendaner’s execution. I’ve only seen that in one other case, when Troy Anthony Davis was executed in 2011 for murdering an off-duty Savannah police officer.

National and international media followed every detail of the Davis execution. Gissendaner’s case had almost the same attention.

She was the first woman Georgia has put to death in 70 years. She was the first person in at least 40 years that Georgia has executed who did not commit the actual murder. Her spiritual awakening in prison led many to question putting someone to death who has been rehabilitated and is no longer the same person who plotted her husband’s murder in 1997.

Some things are still the same

The Department of Corrections has rules it strictly follows when it comes to media witnesses.

There are five of us, but only four stay together. An hour before the appointed time, we’re driven to the entrance to the massive prison.

A reporter from the Gwinnett Daily Post is chosen to follow deputies as they escort Gissendaner into the death chamber and prepare the IVs that will carry the powerful sedative.

Then the rest of us are driven to the prison entrance. We are led though an underground tunnel and up a flight of stairs where we are given notepads and two pencils. We then wait in a nearby employee break room.

We wait for hours and the mood shifts from boredom to high-alert and then back to boredom. The long stretches of silence are broken by talk of sports, people we cover and, of course, Gissendaner.

An obviously bored prison guard assigned to baby sit us pops her chewing gum as she studies the screen on her cell phone.

The hum from the condenser keeping soft drinks in a vending machine cold is almost deafening.

At 10:30 p.m., a prison spokeswoman tells us all appeals except one still before the U.S. Supreme Court have been denied.

A 11:39 p.m., they tell us it’s time.

Gissendaner is strapped to the gurney when we enter the chamber. She lifts her head to watch the witnesses taking their seats on the three church pews. Hers arms are strapped to boards that extend out and down from each side. The IVs have been inserted. A sheet covers most of her body.

With everyone seated, Gissendaner directs her final statement to one of her lawyers, Susan Casey.

“I love you, Susan,” Gissendaner said. “You let my kids know I went out singing “Amazing Grace.”

Casey nods and then sobs. A chaplain prays. And then she sings.

“Amazing grace,

how sweet the sound,

that saved a wretch like me.”

A few more lines and then Gissendaner closed her eyes for the last time.

Ten minutes after the execution started, doctors declare that her heart was no longer beating.

“The court-ordered execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner was carried out at 12:21 a.m.,” warden Bruce Chatman announces.

The curtain is drawn closed over the window and we are quickly escorted out.

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