By Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
Though a variety of factors may be keeping Kelly Gissendaner alive, the local supporters who have waged a savvy media campaign on her behalf may be one of the most influential, drawing national attention.
The execution of Gissendaner, the only woman on Georgia's death row, was delayed in late February because of a winter storm. A second try in early March was canceled when the drug that was to be used to kill her didn't look right. Her supporters are asking for a federal stay while state execution procedures are investigated.
Gissendaner was convicted of the 1997 murder of her husband. She had persuaded her boyfriend to kill Douglas Gissendaner, and the boyfriend later testified against her.
Since then, she has graduated from a theology program operated by a consortium of divinity schools in the Atlanta region and earned encomiums from guards, chaplains, and teachers alike as a powerful example of religious conversion. Her case has drawn attention not only from progressive death penalty opponents, but also from mainstream evangelical media outlets like Christianity Today and other believers with high media profiles.
Using a multifaceted blend of digital outreach and old-fashioned local networking, her supporters turned a story that had already engaged many volunteers, both inside and outside Lee Arrandale State Prison, into a national clemency campaign.
"Who knows why one thing gets social media attention and another doesn't?" asked Mark Oppenheimer, who described Gissendaner's relationship with famed German theologian Jurgen Moltmann in a New York Times column the same week the Georgia parole board denied her clemency.
"She's a Christian in the South, and that goes far," Oppenheimer added. "It wins a lot of people's empathy and it's attractive to the media. It's easier to rally around a Christian than an atheist on death row."
"We were really expecting clemency to go through," said activist Melissa Browning, who teaches contextual theology at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology.
But when that didn't happen - two requests for clemency have been denied at this point - Browning and others were prepared with a full-court press to save Gissendaner.
Between her two scheduled execution dates, supporters had uploaded essays to the Huffington Post, launched a popular Twitter hashtag, and worked alongside the nonprofit Faith in Public Life to recruit 1,000 religious leaders to sign a clemency petition. Another petition, at www.groundswell-mvmt.org, attracted about 84,000 signatures in two days, Browning reports.
Browning says that a number of conservative Georgia faith leaders and congregants (many of whom are death penalty supporters) have been advocating a life-without-parole sentence - on the condition that their names not be made public.
Part of the reason the campaign became a national one, says Mercer professor David Gushee, was that Gissendaner put a face and narrative to what might have been an abstract story. "Any system in which they are locked away, and the general public never sees them again, human beings become invisible," he said. Now, many people know Gissendaner and her story.
For Browning, who has about 700 Twitter followers, the days before Gissendaner's second execution date were an intense and fast education in creating social-media buzz. "It was a huge factor," she said, "because we did get information out and we got it out quickly."
"Social media expands the circle of abolitionists," said Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. "More and more people become involved, engaged on the issue or by a case. Some may not stay involved, but some will."
As Dear pointed out, the furor over Gissendaner takes place in a national environment in which death penalty cases have been on the decline.
After posting an open letter to "Georgia's Christian citizens" on Baptist News Global, Gushee watched as his impassioned indictment against the death penalty, threaded with scriptural allusions, was shared hundreds of times on Twitter and thousands more on Facebook.
"It certainly was a very loud campaign, and it would have been impossible for the decision-makers not to notice it," he said.
Activists now wait to see if their pleas will make a difference, rippling beyond a state in which there are numerous ties among death penalty opponents across party lines.
"To me, it's interesting how few clergy and theologians speak about the death penalty," Oppenheimer said, and "how strong a consensus there is among conservative evangelicals that it's acceptable. . . . The question is whether that will ever change."