An unlikely friendship blossoms between a killer and a scholar

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Story highlights

  • Convicted murderer Kelly Gissendaner is the only woman on Georgia's death row
  • She began studying theology in prison and struck up a relationship with scholar Jurgen Moltmann
  • Some say Gissendaner's study of theology made a saint out of a sinner

Atlanta (CNN)A few months ago, Kelly Gissendaner wrote a letter to a pen pal across the Atlantic. She told him the state of Georgia was about to fix a date for her execution. One evening soon, she would be strapped to a gurney, needles would be inserted into her arm, and poison would course through her veins until she was dead.

The letter arrived a few days later at the home of an 88-year-old man in Tubingen, Germany. After reading it, he took one of his white handkerchiefs, folded it neatly and placed it in an envelope to mail to Georgia's death row.
"When the tears are coming," he wrote, "take my handkerchief."
    The man in Germany was Jurgen Moltmann, an eminent theologian and author who met Gissendaner in prison in 2011. The two have kept in touch through letters ever since.
    The circumstances of their lives are vastly different. And yet, they found commonality.
    Moltmann was 18 when he was recruited into Adolf Hitler's army and sent to the front lines in the Belgian forest. He took with him the poems of Goethe and the philosophy of Nietzsche.
    Toward the end of the war, he surrendered to the first British soldier he encountered. For nearly three years, he was confined to prisoner-of-war forced labor camps.
    German theologian Jurgen Moltmann attended death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner's graduation ceremony.
    It was in those camps that he began to ponder the brutality of war. The guards often nailed photographs of concentration camps to the prisoners' huts, forcing them to confront the horrors of the Holocaust. He lost both faith and hope in German culture, his remorse so great that sometimes he wished he had died on the battlefield.
    He began to read the Bible for the first time behind barbed wire in Kilmarnock, Scotland. He likes to say now that he did not find Christ, but that Christ found him in his sadness and desperation, when he was utterly without aspiration. Prisoners who had been professors before the war often taught other POWs, and Moltmann began to study Christianity. He says the camp often felt like a monastery. He describes it as "an existential experience of healing our wounded souls."
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    When he was finally freed, he returned home to Germany and, against his father's wishes, studied theology. He went on to become a professor, and a pastor. But the scars of a frightened, lonely prisoner of war stayed in his heart.
    So when he first came across Gissendaner, he understood how she, too, had found God and theology. How she, too, had been without hope until then.
    Gissendaner had been sentenced to die in 1998 for recruiting her then-boyfriend Gregory Owen to kill her husband, Doug Gissendaner.
    The crime was horrific.
    Georgia prosecutors said Gissendaner, a mother of three, wanted her husband gone so she could claim two life insurance policies worth $10,000 and take charge of an $84,000 house. Owen stabbed Doug Gissendaner to death; his body was recovered two weeks later.
    Prosecutors argued before a jury that Kelly Gissendaner had her husband murdered out of "pure greed."
    She went to prison a selfish and arrogant woman who, by her own admission, put on a tough persona to shield herself from the hideous truth. Many chaplains she interacted with over the years have described her as such.
    But in the same year Gissendaner was sentenced to die, the Atlanta Theological Association started a yearlong program in which women prisoners could earn a certificate in theological studies. The association was an alliance of seminaries, including the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where Moltmann has been a visiting professor.
    Her friends say Gissendaner had already begun to transform herself by the time she enrolled in the program a dozen years later, in 2010. She was the only student from death row. Georgia has no other women facing execution.
    One of the professors in the program was Jenny McBride, who recalled that by the time she met Gissendaner, "she was, in the words of the Apostle Paul, a 'new creation.' "
    Inmate and professor read together the words of Rowan Williams, then the archbishop of Canterbury. Healing and restoration, Williams wrote, can only be achieved through facing the "ruins of the past" and building from it a present and future.
    Kelly Gissendaner earned a degree in theology.
    McBride, who now teaches at Wartburg College in Iowa, said Gissendaner confronted the actions of her past. She admitted to plotting the murder and expressed deep remorse to her children and her husband's family.
    "I lost all judgment," Gissendaner wrote in her application for clemency earlier this year. "I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned firsthand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God's grace and mercy. I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know. ..."
    It was during the second semester of the theology course, McBride said, when Gissendaner first learned of Moltmann, reading the German pastor's most well-known work, "Theology of Hope."
    Moltmann's journey from prisoner of war to eminent scholar brought him to a reality centered on hope. Biblical hope, he said, is not a hope that gives up on life but rather one that looks for something better in the here and now.
    He speaks of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the future it proclaims. He writes that a true Christian sets out to transform the present rather than fear the future.
    Gissendaner was deeply affected by Moltmann's theology.
    "Do you think I can write to him?" she asked McBride.
    "Absolutely."
    And so she began a conversation.
    Dear Jurgen,
    I hope this letter finds you well rested after lecturing in many countries. I do think you are amazing to still be lecturing and sharing your wisdom and knowledge with so many others. For those who hear you I know it's a blessing to them. If I ever get the opportunity to just meet you I would be in awe. To be able to sit down with you and have a conversation with you would be truly amazing!
    Gissendaner got her wish.
    Soon after receiving her letter, Moltmann visited the Candler School in Atlanta to deliver a special lecture on the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. The next day, Gissendaner would be graduating from the theology program at her prison in northeast Georgia. Moltmann drove the 70 miles from Atlanta to Lee Arrendale State Prison to speak at her graduation ceremony.
    "Your community is important for me. Therefore I came," he told Gissendaner and her fellow inmates. "When I first heard of your study of theology in prison, pictures of my youth and of the beginning of my own theological studies emerged from the depth of my memory. Yes, I remember."
    Gissendaner spoke of the hunger she felt for theology.
    "This theology program has shown me that hope is still alive and that, despite a gate or a guillotine hovering over my head, I still possess the ability to prove that I am human," she said in her speech that day.
    "Labels on anyone can be notoriously misleading and unforgiving things. But no matter the label attached to me, I have the capacity and the unstoppable desire to accomplish something positive and have a lasting impact," she said.
    "Even prison cannot erase my hope or conviction that the future is not settled for me, or anyone. ... I have placed my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."
    Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who has been ministering to death row inmates for three decades, says she understands what drew Gissendaner to Moltmann's theology.
    Moltmann bridged what Prejean describes as a common disconnect between institutional religion and a person who is suffering. He also took the time to write to her, to give her back her dignity.
    "It's an affirmation of her humanity and her potential," Prejean says.
    One time, Prejean says, a death row guard told her the state was executing a man who he knew was different than the murderer who had walked in years ago. But that didn't matter.
    "You are freeze-framed in an act. And the state is freeze-framed in killing," says Prejean, who recently testified against the death penalty for Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
    Prejean, the subject of the movie "Dead Man Walking," likens Moltmann's beliefs to the Liberation Theology of Latin America, which swept up the Catholic Church in a struggle to fight 20th-century injustices suffered by the poor.
    "He connected hope to the way Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, of our collaboration with people who are suffering now," Prejean says. "That's what Pope Francis is doing. One week after he became Pope, he was in a prison washing the feet of prisoners. It's solidarity with all human beings."
    Prejean says she has no doubt Francis would approve of Moltmann's relationship with Gissendaner.
    "He'd do it himself if he could," she says. "He'd drive up the Popemobile to death row."
    More than 500 members of the clergy and other religious leaders have signed a petition asking the state to spare Gissendaner's life, saying she has embraced Christianity and is no longer the person who had her husband killed. Two of Gissendaner's children also have spoken on her behalf. But Doug Gissendaner's family remains resolute in the wish to see her die. And they're not alone.
    "Doug is the true victim of this pre-meditated and heinous crime," his family said in a statement issued in March. "We, along with our friends and supporters and our faith, will continue fighting for Doug until he gets the justice he deserves no matter how long it takes."
    Phil Wages, pastor at Winterville First Baptist Church near Atlanta, is among those who stand with the victim's family. He says he would never put his name to a petition seeking clemency for Gissendaner.
    "Absolutely, I believe in the power of the Gospel to change anybody from a sinner to a saint, from having a heart of stone to heart of flesh," Wages says. "But I don't think change negates what the state of Georgia decided. There was enough evidence to convict her and give her the death penalty. Change does not get her a 'get out jail free' card."
    Wages was an officer in the Gwinnett County Police Department in 1997 and watched his colleagues bring in Gissendaner after her arrest. He says he is glad she turned to God.
    "I think a lot of men and women behind bars would not have otherwise been interested in the Bible had they not been in such a difficult place," he says. "It does take suffering sometimes for people to begin to think about spiritual things."
    But he does not agree with the theology that drew Gissendaner to Moltmann's teachings.
    "Moltmann believes God suffers with us," Wages says. "This is not the understanding of the church for thousands of years. I would argue that God is transcendent. He is above creation. Therefore, he can't suffer with us."
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    Back in Germany, Moltmann, now old and feeble, knows he may never again see the woman greatly touched by his theology. Her first execution date was set for February 25 but was delayed because of inclement weather. She was taken to the death chamber again on March 2.
    Moltmann prepared a candlelight ceremony with his family. He wanted to thank God for Gissendaner's life and ask forgiveness for her sins.
    Gissendaner was given a last meal: cheeseburger, fries, ice cream. Then at the last moment, her life was spared again after authorities noticed a problem with the lethal drug phenobarbital.
    A third date has not yet been set. Georgia has postponed executions until it determines what went wrong with the drug. Several other states have done the same. Public opinion has shifted against capital punishment, imposed still in 32 states. The Nebraska Legislature voted Wednesday to repeal it.
    Moltmann feels God's providence can be tricky. He argued with God after the State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Gissendaner's plea for clemency.
    "When the delays came," he says, "I had the feeling God was answering my prayers."
    He thought about the handkerchief he had sent across the Atlantic. Gissendaner had written him back after it arrived. She told him it was the most heartfelt gift she'd ever received in her nearly 17 years on death row. She was beyond touched, she told him.
    He wondered if prison officials would allow her to hold onto that little piece of cloth. If they knew what it meant to her. And whether, in the end, it would bring her a modicum of peace.