Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens offers the following information in the case against Kelly Renee Gissendaner, who may begin to be executed at noon on September 29, 2015 for the 1997 murder of her husband Douglas Gissendaner.
On September 18, 2015, the Superior Court of Gwinnett County filed an order setting the seven-day window in which the execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner may occur to begin at noon, September 29, 2015, and ending seven days later at noon on October 6, 2015. Gissendaner has concluded her direct appeal proceedings and her state and federal habeas corpus proceedings.
Gissendaner’s Crime (Feb. 7, 1997)
The facts of the case, as presented at trial, show that Gissendaner married Douglas Gissendaner in September of 1989. Douglas joined the Army in January 1990, their daughter was born on March 28, 1990, and Douglas was transferred to Germany in September 1990. Gissendaner and Douglas separated in December 1991, after Douglas had served in Desert Storm and then left the Army. Gissendaner joined the Army in March 1992, and Douglas joined Gissendaner and the children in Virginia in October 1992, but he left six weeks later. Gissendaner and Douglas divorced in March 1993.
Gissendaner and Douglas started seeing each other again in February 1995, remarried in May 1995, and separated in September 1995. Douglas again filed for divorce, but he later dropped the suit, as he and Gissendaner started dating again in May 1996. The couple moved to Auburn, Ga., in December 1996 and purchased a home together.
However, Gissendaner had met co-defendant Gregory Owen in September of 1995. Gissendaner and co-defendant Owen broke up in April 1996 and did not see each other again until October 1996, when Gissendaner called co-defendant Owen’s sister, Belinda Leicht, purportedly to tell Belinda about a job. However, Gissendaner also asked for co-defendant Owen’s pager number. At this time, Gissendaner told one of her co-workers that she was not happy with Douglas and was in love with co-defendant Owen.
On Nov. 8, 1996, Pamela Kogut, a friend of Gissendaner’s, drove Gissendaner to a hotel in Winder, Ga., where Gissendaner spent the night with co-defendant Owen. In December, when co-defendant Owen’s sister asked Gissendaner what her intentions were with her brother, Gissendaner replied that she was only staying with Douglas to use his credit and money to purchase a house and then she would get rid of him. However, Gissendaner was telling others and giving all outward appearances that her marriage had taken a turn for the better.
Gissendaner first brought up the idea of killing Douglas to co-defendant Owen in November of 1996, when she asked co-defendant Owen how to get rid of Douglas. When co-defendant Owen suggested that she divorce Douglas, Gissendaner stated that divorce would not work because Douglas would not leave her alone if she simply divorced him. Gissendaner and co-defendant Owen discussed killing Douglas on four or five occasions, all at Gissendaner’s initiation, before reaching a final agreement to kill him. It was agreed that, on Feb. 7, 1997, while Gissendaner was out with friends, co-defendant Owen would kill Douglas. The murder went exactly as Gissendaner planned.
On Feb. 7, 1997, Gissendaner picked co-defendant Owen up at his home and drove him to her house at approximately 5:30 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. Gissendaner changed clothing, gave co-defendant Owen a night stick and a six to eight inch hunting knife and left. Gissendaner spent the evening with Pamela Kogut, Kerri Otis, and Nicole Bennett, eventually going dancing at “The Shack” at 10:30 p.m. Ms. Otis had attempted to reschedule the evening, but Gissendaner insisted that they had to go out that night. The group left at 11:30 p.m. when Gissendaner stated that she had a bad feeling and had to go home.
In the meantime, Douglas had spent the evening at the home of Tom and Kathy Nesbit, friends of the family from church. Douglas worked on cars with Tom from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. When Douglas left, he stated he was going straight home. Douglas arrived home at approximately 11:30 p.m. Co-defendant Owen was waiting for him inside the house. As Douglas was closing the door, co-defendant Owen walked up behind him, put a knife to his neck, and told him that he needed to go for a ride. The two got into Douglas’ car, and co-defendant Owen, with the knife in his lap, made Douglas drive in the direction of Luke Edwards Road in Gwinnett County, Ga.
When they arrived at a desolate area on Luke Edwards Road, co-defendant Owen made Douglas get out of the car, walk toward the woods, and get down on his knees. As Gissendaner had instructed co-defendant Owen, co-defendant Owen took Douglas’ watch and wedding band to make it appear like robbery was the motive for the murder. When Douglas was on his knees, co-defendant Owen hit him in the back of the head with the night stick. Douglas fell forward and was silent. Co-defendant Owen then stabbed Douglas in the neck eight to ten times.
Gissendaner had arrived at the prearranged scene of the murder as co-defendant Owen was stabbing Douglas but remained in her car. When co-defendant Owen approached Gissendaner’s car after the stabbing, Gissendaner asked if Douglas was dead. Although co-defendant Owen replied that he thought he was dead, Gissendaner went to check on the body anyway. After Gissendaner walked back from the direction of Douglas’ body, she got into her car and co-defendant Owen got into Douglas’ car. Co-defendant Owen followed Gissendaner about three-fourths to a mile up the road. As Gissendaner continued to the end of the road in her car, co-defendant Owen stopped his car and picked up a can of kerosene that Gissendaner had left for him earlier, doused Douglas’ car with the kerosene and set it on fire. Co-defendant Owen then walked up to the end of the road, where Gissendaner picked him up and drove him home.
After Gissendaner dropped off co-defendant Owen, co-defendant Owen put his clothes, the knife, the stick, and Douglas’ jewelry into a garbage bag and disposed of them one to two nights later.
Between 7:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the murder, Gissendaner phoned Douglas’ parents, the Nesbits, and Pamela Kogut, purportedly looking for Douglas. All testified that Gissendaner sounded strangely calm and unemotional. Gissendaner told people that she had come home at approximately midnight, mistakenly taken a sleeping pill rather than a pain pill and gone to sleep. Family, friends and the police were soon searching for signs of Douglas. The Department of Natural Resources found Douglas’ burned car on Sunday morning, but could not find Douglas’ body. Gissendaner acted surprised for about 15 minutes, and then did not seem to be distraught at all. When Gissendaner went to the scene of the burned car, she showed no emotion.
Gissendaner appeared on television news asking for information on Douglas’ whereabouts. However, while the search continued for Douglas, Gissendaner basically continued business as usual, even going back to work. Gissendaner told Ms. Otis that her house would be paid for with insurance, so she did not have to worry. However, Gissendaner found out that there, in fact, was no insurance policy in effect. Gissendaner was irritated that Douglas had not taken care of it. Ms. Nesbit asked Gissendaner whether she thought co-defendant Owen had anything to do with Douglas being missing, but Gissendaner was very quiet and did not really respond to that question. Ms. Otis told Gissendaner that she should tell the investigator about co-defendant Owen, but Gissendaner did not do so.
Investigator Doug Davis of the Gwinnett County Police Department interviewed Gissendaner several times during the search for Douglas. On Sunday, Feb. 9, 1997, Gissendaner told him there were no marital problems between Douglas and her. During a second interview on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 1997, Gissendaner told Investigator Davis about the previous marital difficulties, that she had arrived home about 12:15 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 8, 1997, and that there were no life insurance policies in effect for Douglas. Investigator Davis learned about her relationship with co-defendant Owen before Gissendaner admitted to her extra-marital affair with co-defendant Owen. In another interview on Thursday, Feb. 13, 1997, Gissendaner told Investigator Davis that co-defendant Owen had threatened to kill her and that she had ended their relationship in December 1996 when she and Douglas had reconciled. She further acknowledged speaking with co-defendant Owen a few times since December 1996 when co-defendant Owen called her at work to inquire as to how she and the children were and that he had paged her as recently as Friday, Feb. 7, 1997. However, phone records indicated 65 contacts initiated by Gissendaner to co-defendant Owen, the last being a phone call to co-defendant Owen’s beeper at 12:28 a.m. on Friday night, Feb. 7, 1997. Gissendaner also told Investigator Davis that there were other men with whom she had recently had extra-marital affairs.
Douglas Gissendaner’s body was finally located on Feb. 20, 1996, approximately one mile from his car, 100 to 150 feet off the road, on his knees, face down. Douglas had received at least four stab wounds in the back of the head and the neck region. The cause of death was the stab wounds to the neck. However, the fatal wound could not be determined with 100 percent certainty because the right side of the victim’s neck, including the skin and much of the soft tissues, had been devoured by animals after death.
Co-defendant Owen initially denied any involvement in the murder, but confessed on Feb. 24, 1997, and implicated Gissendaner. Gissendaner was arrested for murder on Feb. 25, 1997. That day, Gissendaner called Pamela Kogut, saying “I did it.” However, Gissendaner also told her that co-defendant Owen held a knife to her and said he would kill her and the children if she told anybody about it.
While in jail awaiting trial, Gissendaner shared a jail cell for a short period of time with Laura McDuffie. Gissendaner got angry and hostile when she heard that co-defendant Owen was to be sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the murder. At that point, Gissendaner began writing letters to hire a third person who would falsely confess to holding Gissendaner at gunpoint and making her go to the crime scene on the night of the murder. Gissendaner asked Ms. McDuffie to help her find that third party person and said she was willing to pay $10,000. Ms. McDuffie turned these letters, which also contained names of people that Gissendaner wanted beaten up, over to her lawyer because she did not want to get involved in a murder case.
The Trial (1997-1999)
Gissendaner was indicted in the Superior Court of Gwinnett County, Ga., on April 30, 1997, for malice murder. On Nov. 18, 1998, a jury convicted Gissendaner as charged in the indictment. The jury’s recommendation of a death sentence was returned on Nov. 19, 1998. Thereafter, Gissendaner filed a motion for new trial, which was denied on Aug. 27, 1999.
The Direct Appeal (2000-2001)
The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Gissendaner’s conviction and death sentence on July 5, 2000. Gissendaner v. State, 272 Ga. 704 (2000). The United States Supreme Court denied Gissendaner’s request to appeal on Feb. 26, 2001. Gissendaner v. Georgia, 531 U.S. 1196 (2001).
State Habeas Corpus Proceedings (2001-2008)
Gissendaner, represented by attorneys from the Georgia Resource Center and Alston & Bird, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Butts County, Ga. on Dec. 18, 2001. An evidentiary hearing was held Dec. 13-14, 2004. On Feb. 16, 2007, the state habeas corpus court entered an order denying Gissendaner state habeas relief. The Georgia Supreme Court denied Gissendaner’s appeal on Nov. 3, 2008.
Federal Habeas Corpus Proceedings (2009-2012)
Gissendaner, represented by attorneys from the Federal Defender Program, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on Jan. 9, 2009. On March 21, 2012, the district court denied Gissendaner federal habeas corpus relief.
11th Circuit Court of Appeals (2012-2013)
Gissendaner’s case was appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012. The case was orally argued before the 11th Circuit on June 24, 2013. On Nov. 19, 2013, the 11th Circuit denied relief. Gissendaner v. Seaboldt, 735 F.3d 1311 (11th Cir. 2013).
United States Supreme Court (2014)
Gissendaner requested to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which was denied October 6, 2014. Gissendaner v. Seaboldt, 135 S.Ct. 159 (2014).