Neither of the convicted murderers physically killed anyone, but both were sentenced to death.
One, Georgia inmate Kelly Gissendaner, died by lethal injection Wednesday morning.
The other, Oklahoma inmate Richard Glossip, is to die Wednesday afternoon.
Death penalty opponents say their sentences aren’t just shocking on their own, but doubly so because the actual killers received only life sentences.
Georgia: A unique execution
Gissendaner’s death Wednesday came after a flurry of requests for a stay of execution at the state and federal levels. All attempts failed.
In her final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, her attorneys wrote that she would become “the only non-trigger person in the State of Georgia to have been executed in the era of the modern death penalty.”
“Have societal standards of decency evolved to the point that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments now prohibit the execution of a capital defendant who did not physically participate in the murder of her victim?” her attorneys wrote.
Gissendaner was convicted of murder for orchestrating the stabbing of her husband Douglas in 1997.
She plotted with her then-boyfriend, Gregory Owen, who carried out the attack. The Georgia attorney general’s office said Gissendaner gave Owen a ride before and after the killing, helped stage the murder to look like a robbery and left kerosene for Owen to help him destroy evidence.
Owen later accepted a plea deal and testified against Gissendaner in exchange for a life sentence.
Gissendaner was offered a plea deal but declined and went forward with her trial, HLN legal analyst Joey Jackson said. A jury eventually sentenced her to death.
Riding on hope
Gissendaner’s decision to not accept a plea deal came from her attorney at the time, said the Rev. Cathy Zappa, the priest who counseled the inmate.
“I think she put a lot of faith in that decision,” Zappa told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday morning.
“The Board of Pardons and Paroles does have the option to grant clemency, and in several of the cases where they have granted clemency in the last 40 years, it’s been because the sentence was disproportionate to the co-defendant.”
Gissendaner’s supporters argued that not only was her sentence disproportionate, but that the 47-year-old had also turned her life around and had become a “powerful voice for good.”
“While incarcerated, she has been a pastoral presence to many, teaching, preaching and living a life of purpose,” stated a petition to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. “She is an extraordinary example of the rehabilitation that the corrections system aims to produce.”
Jackson noted that Gissendaner earned a theology degree while imprisoned. But her accomplishments did not sway the pardons and paroles board.
Oklahoma: A controversial death sentence
The scheduled execution of Richard Glossip on Wednesday is controversial for several reasons. Not only was his co-defendent — the actual killer — spared a death sentence, but many say Glossip had nothing to do with a murder at all.
Glossip was convicted of murder for the 1997 death of motel owner Barry Van Treese.
The man who bludgeoned Van Treese to death, Justin Sneed, testified that Glossip hired him for the murder.
But jurors weren’t presented with evidence of contradictory accounts that Sneed gave to police, wrote Sister Helen Prejean, who ministers to prisoners on death row.
Prejean claimed there was the lack of evidence linking Glossip to the crime, and some evidence that may have helped clear him never made it before a jury.
For example, “there was the shower curtain and duct tape that Sneed claimed he and Glossip used to cover the motel window that was broken during the struggle,” Prejean wrote.
“Had the curtain and tape been presented as evidence, the jury might have heard that they contained only Sneed’s fingerprints, not Glossip’s.”
Glossip’s case went to an Oklahoma appeals court. He cited “ineffective assistance of counsel” and “omissions to discover evidence.” He also claimed that his sentence, based solely on the testimony of his co-defendant, was unconstitutional.
But an Oklahoma appeals court recently denied Glossip’s request for a stay of execution.
“Any further request for a stay of execution is also denied,” the court said.
Glossip said he believes Sneed implicated him to avoid the death penalty.
“At first I was angry at Justin, but now I feel sorry for him,” Glossip said in a January interview with CNN. “He’s afraid of how Oklahoma will kill him if he owns up to what really happened, just like I am afraid of how they’ll kill me.”
Why death sentences often stick
Jackson, the HLN legal analyst, said a pardons and paroles board might be hesitant to change death sentences and go against a jury’s decision.
“The system has to look at whether any legal errors were committed at all here,” he said. “If the legal process carries itself out, and a jury — in its wisdom — opted to give death … why go against a jury’s decision after the evaluated the facts and the evidence?”
Jackson said board members might not budge solely because a convicted murderer wasn’t the actual killer.
“They’ve considered everything, and they decided, look, you did a heinous crime, you were a participant, you were the impetus of it, even if you didn’t actually stab him yourself, and as a result you’re going to pay the ultimate price.”
Victim’s brother: ‘Do not feel sorry for the bastard’
To some relatives of the victims in these two cases, the fact that Gissendaner and Glossip didn’t physically kill is moot. Had it not been for them, those relatives say, their loved ones would still be alive.
“I will speak for my brother,” Kenneth Van Treese said at a clemency hearing for Glossip last year. “‘It hurts like hell to have your head bashed in with a baseball bat. Do not feel sorry for the bastard who took my life.'”
Gissendaner’s children Kayla and Dakota have spent years in emotional turmoil. As young children, they had to grapple with the murder of their father. Then they had to come to terms with the fact their mother orchestrated it.
Dakota Gissendaner said he long “despised” his mother.
But slowly, they reconciled with their mother and fought for her life to be spared.
“My dad would not want my mom to be executed, even knowing her role in his murder,” Kayla Gissendaner said before her mother’s execution. “He would not want us to endure another devastating loss.”
But other relatives of Douglas Gissendaner said Kelly Gissendaner’s punishment was appropriate.
“Kelly planned and executed Doug’s murder. She targeted him and his death was intentional. Kelly chose to have her day in court and after hearing the facts of this case, a jury of her peers sentenced her to death,” they said in a statement.
“As the murderer, she’s been given more rights and opportunity over the last 18 years than she ever afforded to Doug, who, again, is the victim here,” the relatives said.
“She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take.”