Ad Hoc Justice and #KellyOnMyMind

Kelly Gissendaner has the perfect redemption story--without the ending, as of yet.

She is, for those of who are unfamiliar, awaiting execution by the state of Georgia for planning the murder of her husband. More than 500 Georgia clergy and other faith leaders have signed a petition asking for clemency based on evidence that she has experienced a profound spiritual transformation and has changed her life and the lives of others for the better.

Christianity Today published an editorial asking for her life to be spared because she has "turned her life around," citing her confession of guilt, her stated faith in Christ's redemption, as well as testimonials from inmates, overseers and officers. Neither the editorial nor the petition addresses the legitimacy of the death penalty.

The framing is clear: the plea for clemency is not about whether capital punishment is legitimate, but rather it is about making a special exception for those transformed into new persons. It is an intuitive argument, especially for Christians, but it is ultimately incoherent. One cannot plead for clemency for Kelly, without pleading for clemency for all.

First, let's recognize that the only way most of us know about Kelly's story – and thus have the opportunity to petition, protest, and tweet with the hashtag #Kellyonmymind  -- is largely contingent on factors outside of her control. She happened to have access to a theology studies program for prisoners run by several divinity schools in Atlanta. Her teachers have testified to her genuine transformation in her clemency petition, rallied Georgian faith leaders, and have connected her to the renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who became her pen pal and wrote a letter in support of her clemency, resulting in a feature in the The New York Times. We are pleading for clemency for a case that is circumstantially cherry-picked. What about other inmates who have similar stories of transformation but are alone in jail cells with a single bible?

Moreover, what about other stories of repentance that do not look the "perfect" Christian redemption narrative: those who are repentant but who are Muslim or hold no faith, or those who repent but are simply not as saint-like as Kelly, who was described as "an amazing beacon in a very dark place” by a correctional officer? Melissa Browning writes that she likes Kelly’s story because, as a Christian, she "love[s] a good redemption story.” Lets also admit that we prefer redemption stories that fit our faith-narratives, even though repentance is certainly not an exclusively Christian act.  

Of course, one might counter, other stories probably exist and likely merit our advocacy as much as Kelly's does, but it is humanly impossible to fully know them because we are not omniscient and objective. Sure, but if we acknowledge that we do not have the capability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" and thus cannot accurately determine all those who are truly repentant, then why are we in the business of (selectively) choosing who gets pardoned and a chance at life? Moreover, if we lack the ability to determine who is genuinely repentant, then that throws into radical doubt our ability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" to decide who is truly guilty (an estimated four percent of defendants sentenced to die are innocent). 

We, of course, have to make judgments about the intentions of others; there is no escaping this fact. But it is quite another matter to do so with life and death at stake, which means we cannot avoid the larger question, in petitioning for Kelly's pardoning, of whether we, through the institution of the state, have the authority to essentially rationally gamble with someone's life in the act of pronouncing them "guilty" or "repentant."

We, through the state, have the authority to mete out punishment for those who break our laws, or the “terms and conditions” for living in our society. Our authority means that we can, as punishment, legitimately exclude people from our society (e.g. deport) or relegate them to the margins (e.g. imprison), but as a society, we do not have the authority to exclude people from the human race. 

Christians have the additional question of what kind of authority God has granted to the state. The debate tends to hinge on Romans 13 where Paul writes that if you "do wrong, be afraid, for [the ruler] does not bear the sword in vain." As Chaplain Dale Recinella points out, the word for "sword" used is "machaira," which means a dagger; it was not used for decapitation. "Rhomphaia" is a broadsword, which was what was used to execute criminals, indicating that Paul was using the word "sword" to indicate the authority to inflict punishment in general, but not explicitly capital punishment. There is still, obviously, disagreement among scholars as to the implications of "machaira" versus "rhomphaia," but it is worth noting that, according to N.T. Wright, "almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world."  

So what are we really asking when we are asking for Kelly Gissendaner to be pardoned? We are asking, legitimately, that she not be executed – not because of her now-virtuous life, but because her life, or anyone's, is simply not ours to take.  

Sarah Ngu lives and works in New York City as a freelance writer for businesses. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy and a graduate of Columbia University. She writes occasionally for Fare Forward.