US to execute woman who had husband murdered despite Pope Francis' appeal

This photo obtained on Tuesday from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner
This photo obtained on Tuesday from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows death row inmate Kelly GissendanerPHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US state of Georgia was set to execute its first woman in 70 years on Tuesday despite a last-minute appeal for clemency from Pope Francis.

Kelly Gissendaner, 47, was to die by lethal injection at 7 am Singapore today after the state parole board denied the request earlier Tuesday, spokesman Steve Hayes told reporters.

She would be the 16th woman executed in the United States since the Supreme Court reestablished the death penalty in 1976.

Convicted in 1998 of conspiring with her lover to kill her husband, Gissendaner is the only woman on death row in the southern state of Georgia.

Her former lover, Gregory Owen confessed to beating and stabbing Douglas Gissendaner and then trying to make the murder look like a robbery. He negotiated a plea deal with prosecutors and was granted a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

Gissendaner turned down the deal, which meant her case went before a jury.

"The outcome illustrates one of the fundamental flaws with the death penalty - it's applied arbitrarily," said Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International, which is among a number of groups calling for her sentence to be commuted to life in prison.

Pope Francis reinvigorated the efforts of activists fighting capital punishment when he called for the "global abolition of the death penalty" in an address to the US Congress last week.

His personal representative sent a letter to Georgia's parole board on Tuesday making "an urgent appeal" to commute Gissendaner's sentence to "one that would better express both justice and mercy".

"Please be assured of my prayers as you consider this request by Pope Francis for what I believe would be a just act of clemency," the Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote.

Her supporters have argued that Gissendaner - who watched from her car as Owen murdered her husband and had planned to profit from the death by cashing in an insurance policy - is a changed woman who found God behind bars.

Gissendaner's daughter and two sons urged officials to spare their mother's life in a statement earlier this month.

"We've lost our dad. We can't imagine losing our mom too."

This will be the third time Gissendaner's children and supporters will prepare themselves to say goodbye.

Gissendaner was set to die in February, but the execution was cancelled due to a snow storm. A month later her execution was again called off because the lethal injection drug officials planned to use, pentobarbital, was uncharacteristically cloudy.

Three botched US executions in 2014 - in which the condemned men could be seen gasping for air and writhing in pain - have led to increased scrutiny of the drugs being used and reignited the debate over capital punishment.