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The Only Woman On Death Row in Georgia Was Just Granted a Last Minute Clemency Hearing

At 7pm tonight, Kelly Renee Gissendaner could be the first woman killed by the Georgia in 70 years, or she could live to eat another meal.
September 29, 2015, 3:25pm
Photo by Bita Honarvar/AP

Ahead of her scheduled execution after sundown tonight, Kelly Renee Gissendaner reportedly asked Georgia prison authorities for a meal of cheese dip with chips, Texas fajita nachos and a diet frosted lemonade. It will be her second "last meal" in roughly six months. In March, before authorities deemed a cloudy-looking lethal injection drug enough grounds to suspend her impending death, she tucked into a dinner consisting of two Burger King Whoppers with all the trimmings, French fries, a salad with Paul Newman buttermilk dressing, and cherry vanilla ice cream.

But Gissandener's dinner tonight again may not be her last.

Yesterday afternoon, Georgia's Board of Pardons and Paroles granted an eleventh-hour clemency hearing in response to a request from one of Gissendaner's sons. At 7pm tonight, the 47-year-old mother of three may be the first woman killed by the state in 70 years, or she could be pardoned for the brutal murder of her husband and live to eat another meal.

If Gissandener is spared from the death chamber today, it would be the third time her execution has been postponed.

The first deferment was announced in late February after a snowstorm swept through the city just south of Atlanta where Gissendaner is being held. The second came less than a week later when the execution team noticed the lethal drug that was supposed to be used in her execution, Pentobarbital, was cloudy, and decided to postpone.

Related:  'Cloudy' Lethal Drug Halts Georgia's First Female Execution In 70 Years — Again

Gissendaner has spent the last 16 years on death row, convicted of orchestrating the gruesome murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, in 1997. The mother of three had reportedly conspired with her lover, Gregory Owen, who had lured Douglas into the woods and stabbed him in the neck 10 times before setting his car on fire, all while Kelly Gissendaner was present. According to court documents, she was convinced that her husband wouldn't "leave her alone if she simply divorced him."

Owen received a 25-year prison sentence for his role in the killing, while Gissendaner was sentenced to death.

In the past few months, activists and Georgia clergy members banded together to petition the state to pardon Gissendaner, who earned a theology degree while in prison. Supporters have sent letters and petitions containing thousands of signatures to the state's governor in an effort to halt the execution, but to no avail. In Georgia, the governor does not have the power to grant clemency — that authority lies with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

In early March, the board upheld a decision to deny Gissendaner's last minute appeal for clemency, but days later the cloudy appearance of the Pentobarbital, the only drug currently used to execute inmates in Georgia, temporarily secured her more time.

Georgia also suspended all executions until the drug could be tested.

An analysis conducted by the state concluded that the white solid in the liquid drug was likely formed as it was being shipped and stored at a temperate that was too low. The Department of Corrections also carried out its own tests to check the temperature theory, but found no solids formed when they stored the drug at various temperatures over a number of days.

While the mysterious solids remain unexplained, Gissendaner's lawyers argued the state can't guarantee the effectiveness of the drug. Meanwhile, state attorney has said that officials have done everything in their power to prevent a repeat, but assured that the execution would not proceed again if it did.

Related: Utah could soon revive death by firing squad

Lethal injections have attracted media and public scrutiny in recent months, after many drug companies stopped supplying US prisons and corrections facilities with the most commonly used drugs for ethical reasons and over controversy surrounding capital punishment.

The shortage prompted states to use experimental drug cocktails that resulted in a series of highly publicized executions in 2014 involving largely untested toxins. The botched procedures forced 32 states to reexamine their capital punishment methods, as lawmakers scrambled to find alternative ways to kill death row inmates. Some states proposed to bring back firing squads or the electric chair as back-ups if prison officials couldn't get their hands on lethal drugs.

Georgia is among a group of states that have blackout laws in place to protect the identity of drug manufacturers and any doctors or others present in the execution chamber. A number of lawmakers have recently sought to implement, or have implemented, similar laws in their states in the hopes of encouraging pharmaceutical companies to supply them with the necessary drugs for injections. Some activists say the secrecy laws remove transparency and make it difficult to properly monitor executions.

If Gissendaner is executed tonight, she will be the first woman to be put to death by the state since 1945, when Lena Baker was killed in the electric chair. Baker was posthumously granted a pardon in 2005 after officials found that she killed her boss in self-defense.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

Watch the VICE News conversation: Should There Be a Death Penalty? - The People Speak