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Georgia indefinitely halts executions, buying time for woman on death row

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Bita Honarvar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP/File

(Read caption) Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on Georgia's death row, peers through the slot in her cell door as a guard brings her a cup of ice at Metro State Prison in Atlanta, July 6, 2004. Ms. Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband.

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Georgia's death row inmates received a temporary reprieve Tuesday. The Georgia Department of Corrections announced that all executions in the state would be postponed until stores of the drug used in executions could be analyzed.

Questions about the drug emerged late Monday night as corrections personnel prepared to execute the state's only female death row inmate, Kelly Gissendaner, and discovered that the drug had become "cloudy." 

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The decision to postpone all Georgia executions comes at a time when corrections officials in several states have become increasingly wary of the possibility of botched executions. Three high-profile executions that appeared to go wrong last year drew attention to capital punishment and prompted renewed calls for review.

This spring, the United States Supreme Court will hear a case to determine whether the use of one of the drugs in the three-drug cocktail used to execute prisoners in Oklahoma and Florida violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Georgia uses just one drug for its lethal injections, the barbiturate pentobarbital, and will not be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision.

Despite this, doubts about the drug’s condition led to the indefinite postponement of Ms. Gissendaner’s execution on Monday.

“Prior to the execution, the drugs were sent to an independent lab for testing of potency,” the Georgia Department of Correction said in a statement published by The Washington Post. “The drugs fell within the acceptable testing limits. Within the hours leading up to the scheduled execution, the execution team performed the necessary checks. At that time, the drugs appeared cloudy.”

Gissendaner was sentenced to death in 1998 for orchestrating the murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Her lover is currently serving life in prison, with the possibility of parole in eight years, for stabbing Mr. Gissendaner multiple times.

After several appeals – including a last-ditch plea to the Supreme Court – Gissendaner was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. Monday night. An earlier execution date of Feb. 25 had to be moved due to a winter storm.

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Meanwhile, her attorneys petitioned the Supreme Court to stay the execution. The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had already denied her stay request on Monday.

The stay request highlighted Gissendaner’s newfound religious beliefs and the fact that her children, Kayla and Dakota, do not want their mother to be executed for their father’s murder, according to The Washington Post. The children reportedly wrote letters to the parole board stating that their mother had become, “a woman full of love and compassion.” Although she does not deny her involvement in her husband’s murder, Gissendaner has expressed remorse, according to her appeal.

While the execution was scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, officials waited for the Supreme Court to respond to the appeal. By 11 p.m. the Supreme Court had still not released its decision, and Gissendaner’s execution was called off shortly thereafter. However, state officials confirmed that it was the issue with the drug and not the court order that led to the execution's postponement, The Washington Post reported.

Now, no Georgia death row inmates will be executed until the drugs are analyzed. All executions, including that of Gissendaner, will be rescheduled once the department of corrections has finished its analysis and is ready to proceed.

Only 15 women have been executed since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. If executed, Gissendaner will be the first woman executed in Georgia since the end of the Second World War. 

This report includes material from The Associated Press.