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

Kelly Gissendaner had her first execution date rescheduled last week due to inclement weather. Now officials have delayed the death again because of cloudy injection drugs.

by Liz Fields
Mar 3 2015, 5:17pm

Photo by Nate Jenkins/AP

For the second time in a week, Georgia prison officials have delayed a scheduled execution date for Kelly Renee Gissendaner, the state's only woman on death row. The first deferment was announced Wednesday after a snowstorm swept through the city just south of Atlanta where Gissendaner is being held.

Shortly after sunset on Monday, prison officials at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson were set to walk Gissendaner down the hallway to a death chamber, where she was to be strapped down on a gurney and injected with a cocktail of drugs that would shut down her vital organs.

But the odd appearance of the execution drug, which a prison official said looked "cloudy," rang alarm bells with officials. Out of an "abundance of caution," authorities decided to put off the death again, Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said.

"Within the hours leading up to the scheduled execution, the Execution Team performed the necessary checks. At that time, the drugs appeared cloudy," Hogan said in a statement. "The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed."

No new execution date has been announced.

Gissendaner, 46, has spent the last 16 years on death row, convicted in 1997 of orchestrating the gruesome murder of her husband, Douglas. The mother of three had reportedly conspired with her lover Gregory Owen, who had lured her husband into the woods and stabbed him in the neck 10 times before setting his car alight, all while Gissendaner was present. According to court documents, Gissendaner was convinced that her husband wouldn't "leave her alone if she simply divorced him."

Death row inmate Kelly Renee Gissendaner is seen in an undated picture from the Georgia Department of Corrections.

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

In the past weeks, activists and Georgia clergy members banded together to petition the state to pardon Gissendaner, who earned a theology degree while in prison and has allegedly turned a spiritual corner. In recent weeks, letters and petitions with thousands of signatures have been sent to the state's governor in an effort to halt the first state-ordered killing of a woman in Georgia in 70 years.

"The spiritual transformation and depth of faith that Ms. Gissendaner demonstrates and practices is a deep and sincere expression of a personal relationship with God," chaplain Susan Bishop wrote in the initial clemency petition. "It is not a superficial religious experience."

But the governor has no power to grant clemency, which is decided only by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Last week, the board denied Gissendaner's 11th hour appeal for the state to spare her life, a decision upheld on Monday in a 5-2 vote. A stay request filed by the woman's lawyers was still pending when officials delayed the execution for the second time.

Prior to the scheduled injection, officials sent the drug to a testing lab to analyze its potency, which was found to be at an acceptable level. Reasons for the "cloudy" appearance of the drug Monday evening were not immediately explained by the prison. Currently Georgia uses only the drug Pentobarbital to execute inmates.

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 can't get their hands on enough 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 death chamber. A number of lawmakers have recently sought to or implemented similar laws in their states in the hopes of encouraging pharmaceutical companies to supply them with the necessary drugs for injections.

Ohio and Oklahoma are among those that in 2014 moved to protect some parts of its execution process to shield the identities of the drug manufacturers and distributors. These measures, however, have come under fire from activists who say the secrecy laws remove transparency and make it difficult to properly monitor executions.

If and when Gissendaner's execution is rescheduled, she will be the first woman to be executed in Georgia since 1945, when Lena Baker was killed in the electric chair. Baker was posthumously granted a pardon in 2005 after officials deemed she killed her boss in self-defense.

Related: Utah could soon revive death by firing squad.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields