The only woman on Georgia’s death row was set to be executed late Tuesday night after the state parole board and the courts declined to stop the lethal injection – despite a plea from Pope Francis.
Kelly Renee Gissendaner, a mother of three who was sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of her husband at the hands of her lover, had been scheduled to die at 7 p.m. ET, but it was delayed for last-minute appeals.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied requests for stays of execution three times, ultimately rejecting Gissendaner’s argument that because she was not physically involved in the killing, she should be spared the ultimate punishment.Clergy from around the country had pleaded for mercy for Gissendaner. But the case took an extraordinary turn on Tuesday afternoon when it was revealed that Pope Francis, who called for a ban on the death penalty during his visit to the United States last week, had asked the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to save her life.
“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote on the pontiff’s behalf.
Shortly after the letter was made public, the parole board announced its decision to let its original denial of clemency, voted on in February, stand. As the clock ticked down, a flurry of appeals were filed and rejected in state and federal courts.
Cathy Zappa, an Episcopal priest and friend of Gissendaner, said the uncertainty had taken an emotional toll on Gissendaner.
“This is the third execution date she’s faced, and this one had a lot of question marks around it, so I think it’s been hard to even know how to feel. She’s had one foot in the camp of ‘I’m gonna hold out hope’ and one foot in the camp of knowing she’s gonna die, and preparing for that.”
The victim’s family was split on whether Gissendaner should live or die: Her children appeared before the parole board to ask that their mom be spared the death chamber, but her husband’s relatives said she did not deserve clemency.
“Kelly planned and executed Doug’s murder. She targeted him and his death was intentional,” Douglas Gissendaner’s loved ones said in a written statement.
“In the last 18 years, our mission has been to seek justice for Doug’s murder and to keep his memory alive. We have faith in our legal system and do believe that Kelly has been afforded every right that our legal system affords.
“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. She had no mercy, gave him no rights, no choices, nor the opportunity to live his life. His life was not hers to take.”
Testimony from the inmate’s children was not made public, but her daughter, Kayla, appeared at a prayer vigil outside the prison while waiting for rulings on the various appeals.
She said she had not been able to visit her mother that day because she chose to go to the clemency hearing instead.
Gissendaner’s application for clemency focused on the fact that she received a harsher sentence than Greg Owen, the boyfriend who actually carried out the killing and is serving life without parole.
The application for clemency also noted that Gissendaner has been a model prisoner who counsels other inmates and completed a theology program while behind bars. Hundreds of clergy have supported her clemency bid.
In a last-ditch bid to get the execution cancelled, she argued the drugs Georgia planned to use might be defective since her last scheduled execution was called off because the chemicals appeared cloudy.
If the execution proceeds as planned, Gissendaner will be the first woman put to death in the state in 70 years.
She requested her final meal last week: cheese dip with chips, Texas fajita nachos and a diet frosted lemonade.
NBC News’ Dan Shepherd contributed. This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com.