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When Kelly Gissendaner’s husband, Doug, was murdered in February 1997, it only took police a couple of weeks to cut to the truth: The 28-year-old wife had orchestrated the killing with her lover, 43-year-old Greg Owen.
For many years, Kelly would become the only woman on death row in the state of Georgia, turning her life around behind bars. But her own children would wait to hear the truth from her lips almost until the day of her death, according to “Killer Couples” on Oxygen.
Kelly and Doug had been married in 1989 and divorced in 1993, but they came back to each other about a year and a half later. Their resumed relationship didn’t flourish, however. Kelly wracked up debt while Doug was serving overseas in the military and when he returned, she made a habit of going out partying.
She also held onto the lover she had shacked up with in the interim: Greg Owen, an alcoholic who was completely enamored with Kelly. The pair met in 1995 and by November 1996, Kelly had convinced him the only way they would be together was if Doug was out of the picture, Owen told police weeks after Doug’s killing. Kelly envisioned a sizeable life insurance payout and keeping the house and her kids, all while getting to be with her lover.
The night of Feb. 7, 1997, Kelly brought Owen to her house and armed him with a nightstick and a six to eight-inch hunting knife, according to a Georgia State Attorney General release. She then went out drinking with some friends — her alibi. When Doug returned home that night, Owen jumped him and forced him to drive out to a remote location in his own car.
He then walked Doug out of the car and ordered him to his knees. He took his wedding band and watch, to suggest a robbery, then hit him over the head with the nightstick and stabbed him more than eight times in the neck.
Kelly arrived at the scene to make sure things were going to plan; then the couple took the two cars about three-quarters of a mile up the road and torched Doug’s, according to the state AG release.
Of course, Owen eventually confessed to police on February 24 and was charged with felony murder. The next morning, police arrested Kelly at home. She denied everything, so police offered Owen a plea deal: testify against Kelly and receive a life sentence, with the condition that he not apply for parole for 25 years. He took it.
Kelly went to trial on Nov. 2, 1998, facing the death penalty. Her attorneys’ chief defense strategy was attacking Owen’s credibility, since he was the prosecution’s star witness. However, prosecutors also produced a friend of Kelly’s who said she had confessed on the phone to the murder, as well as a cellmate who alleged Kelly tried to hire someone from inside prison to beat up that friend before she could testify.
A jury found her guilty after a few hours of deliberations, and she was sentenced to death.
“That’s the meanest woman alive,” one juror was heard to say after the verdict was read, according to authorities on “Killer Couples.”
But over the next 16 years, Kelly underwent a transformation. Inmates reported being counseled by her and even, in one case, talked down from suicide. She was “the best example of a prisoner being rehabilitated,” true crime author Lyn Riddle said.
After seven years of avoiding Kelly, her son Dakota Brookshire visited her for the first time, according to Baptist News Global. Brookshire was 3 at the time of the murders and said he grew up hating his mother and what she had done.
However, miraculously, they started a new relationship when they reunited. Brookshire recalled his mom admitting that she had “really messed up” for the past 16 years and asking for the first time what she could do for him.
“It wasn’t about her no more; it was about us kids,” Brookshire told producers. “That right there proved to me that she had changed.”
Still, though, Kelly’s kids had never heard the truth from her mouth.
Just before her last shot at clemency was denied — even a letter from the pope pleading mercy was met by deaf ears at the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole — Kelly saw her kids face to face for the last time.
Dakota asked her a final time to tell them the truth.
“What do you have to lose?” he asked his mother.
Kelly admitted that she planned every aspect of their father’s murder. Brookshire called it a “big relief” to finally heard the words from his mother.
On Sept. 29, 2015, corrections officers marched Kelly to the chamber where she would receive the lethal injection. Right up to the moment she lost consciousness, she was singing “Amazing Grace,” according to Riddle.
For more on Doug Gissendaner’s murder, including an emotional interview with Kelly’s son, watch “Killer Couples” at Oxygen.com and airing Thursdays at 8/7c.
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