Ga. judge declines to halt execution of female inmate

Kate Brumback
Associated Press

Atlanta — A lawyer for the only woman on Georgia’s death row argued Monday there’s a substantial risk of serious harm if his client’s execution proceeds as planned because officials still can’t explain a defect that turned up in the state’s lethal injection drug in March.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 47, is set for execution by injection of pentobarbital at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the state prison in Jackson. She was previously scheduled to die March 2, but state officials called off the execution “out of an abundance of caution” after noticing that the execution drug was “cloudy.”

Gerald King, a lawyer for Gissendaner, on Monday asked U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash to temporarily halt her execution and reconsider his dismissal of a complaint Gissendaner filed in March. Thrash denied the request, saying Gissendaner was not likely to prevail in her arguments. He called the likelihood of his granting her request for reconsideration “remote.”

King said he plans to appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 slaying of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she conspired with her lover, Gregory Owen, who stabbed Douglas Gissendaner to death. Owen, who took a plea deal and testified against Gissendaner, is serving life in prison and will become eligible for parole in 2022.

After the problem with the execution drug surfaced, corrections officials temporarily suspended executions in the state until an analysis could be done.

In mid-April they released lab reports, a sworn statement from a pharmacological expert hired by the state and a short video showing a syringe of clear liquid with chunks of a white solid floating in the solution. Corrections officials said the expert concluded the chunks probably formed because the solution was shipped and stored at a temperature that was too low.

In a June court filing, the department revealed that it did its own test on a new batch of pentobarbital made by the same compounding pharmacist who made the drug meant for Gissendaner’s execution.

The Department of Corrections’ chief of special projects stored one sample in a refrigerator at 34 degrees and one in a room where the temperature fluctuated between 67 degrees and 72 degrees for 11 days, from March 24 to April 3. No changes were recorded in either sample. Both started and ended as clear liquid with no solids.

That test “leaves us with no understanding of why the drugs precipitated,” King said, adding that there’s no reason to think the drug won’t precipitate again Tuesday. The state plans to use the same compounding pharmacist and the same execution protocol and there’s no evidence additional safeguards have been put in place, King said.

The state has done everything it can to ensure that the problem won’t happen again, and state officials would not proceed if a problem was detected, argued Sabrina Graham, a lawyer for the state.

Gissendaner’s lawyers have also released statements from high-profile figures, including former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher and former U.S. Congressman Bob Barr, arguing that Gissendaner shouldn’t be executed because her death sentence is disproportionate since Owen, who actually did the killing, got a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in seven years.

In a statement released through the Gwinnett County district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, Douglas Gissendaner’s family said he is the victim and that Kelly Gissendaner planned the murder and received a just punishment from a jury of her peers.