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Despite Pope Francis' pleas for mercy, several U.S. inmates set to be executed soon

Despite Pope Francis' pleas for mercy, several U.S. inmates set to be executed soon
Sister Helen Prejean, left, addresses the media outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary about the case of death row inmate Richard Glossip. With her are two of Glossip's attorneys, Kathleen Lord and Don Knight. (Associated Press)

Days after Pope Francis urged the world during his U.S. visit to end capital punishment, several U.S. inmates faced execution, including one who was put to death early Wednesday.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner became the first woman to be executed in Georgia in 70 years. She was pronounced dead after lethal injection at a state prison in Jackson.

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Five others had imminent execution dates, but at least two received last-minute reprieves Wednesday -- one in Oklahoma, one in Virginia. A federal judge lifted the stay on the Virginia execution Thursday afternoon, however.

On Wednesday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin granted a 37-day stay to Richard Glossip, delaying his lethal injection more than a month to determine whether the state's new execution drug, potassium acetate, complies with the law.

Glossip was among inmates who challenged the state's lethal injection procedure in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, justices upheld use of the drugs employed in the procedure. But on Wednesday, the state said it had received a different drug that did not match the protocol approved by the high court.

"The governor did the right thing," Fallin's attorney, Donald R. Knight, said in a statement.

On Thursday, Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt asked for an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions to sort out the drug mix-up.

Although four other executions are scheduled within the next week, capital punishment has steadily declined in the United States over the last 20 years, with only 35 executions in 2014 and 21 this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The current surge is partly due to coincidence and partly due to sustained legal challenges that have resulted in delayed executions.

Several states have struggled to establish protocols for lethal injection, experimenting with new drugs or new combinations of drugs as the older ones become more difficult to obtain. Last year, botched executions left inmates struggling, kicking and gasping for air in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma, where Clayton Lockett took more than 40 minutes to die, eventually of a heart attack. Officials had tried to call off his execution as he gasped, writhed and tried to lift his head.

The states that have scheduled the recent or upcoming executions – Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Missouri – are the country's most active practitioners of the death penalty. Together, the cases represent many of the thorny issues – mental illness, possible innocence, racial bias and flawed lethal injection drugs – that have put the death penalty under increased scrutiny.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner, Georgia 

Gissendaner, 47, was sentenced to death in 1998 for convincing her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, to kill her husband, Douglas.

One of the few to be executed even though they did not physically take part in a slaying, Gissendaner admitted her guilt.

In court documents filed in an effort to save her life, her attorneys cited the "disproportionate nature of her sentence relative to her co-defendant," who received a life sentence with a chance for parole. The defense also cited  "her good works in prison" and her "sincere remorse and acceptance of responsibility."

Georgia had intended to execute Gissendaner twice before, calling off one execution because of bad weather and another because a drug looked cloudy.

On Tuesday, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States intervened on behalf of Pope Francis hours before her execution. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano urged a sentence that would "better express both justice and mercy."

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Gissendaner was pronounced dead at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday.

Richard Glossip, Oklahoma

Glossip, 52,  was sentenced to die for his role in the 1997 murder of motel owner Barry Van Treese, who was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat.

Justin Sneed, who wielded the bat, testified that Glossip paid him $10,000 to kill Van Treese. Glossip feared losing his job because Van Treese was furious over the condition of the motel and because Glossip was not keeping proper records of who had been staying there, a motel employee testified. According to court records, Van Treese also told an employee that he was considering firing Glossip.

Glossip contends that he is innocent, and his attorneys argue that he was convicted "solely upon the word of someone the state defines as 'inherently suspect.'"

However, the appeals court that heard his case and denied his appeal said the conviction was "not based solely on the testimony of a codefendant" and was "sufficiently corroborated."

Glossip's execution, delayed multiple times, is now set for Nov. 2.

Alfredo Prieto, Virginia

Prieto, 49, a serial rapist and killer, was convicted of three murders in California and Virginia and is the prime suspect in many more.

A native of El Salvador, he was convicted in 2010 in the 1988 fatal shooting of a young couple, Rachael Raver and Warren Fulton in Reston, Va.

He had been on California's death row since 1992 for raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl, Yvette Woodruff, in Ontario.

Prieto's attorneys argue that his low IQ makes him ineligible for execution and have appealed to the Supreme Court. His execution date was back on for Thursday after a federal judge lifted a temporary restraining order.

Kimber Edwards, Missouri

Edwards was sentenced to death in 2002 for hiring Orthel Wilson to kill his ex-wife, Kimberly Cantrell, after the couple became embroiled in a lengthy dispute over child support for their daughter, Erica.

His attorneys argue that racial bias played a role in his sentencing, noting that prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove all three African Americans from the jury pool.

They have also suggested that Edwards' trial counsel was ineffective for failing to develop a social history and determine that he suffered from Asperger's disorder. Edwards' execution is scheduled for Oct 6.

Juan Martin Garcia, Texas

Garcia, 35, was convicted of murder in 2000 for his role in the 1998 fatal shooting of Hugo Solano in the parking lot of an apartment complex. As Solano walked to his vehicle, Garcia demanded money, took $8 in cash and shot him in the head with a .25-caliber pistol.

Garcia's lawyers argue that he is ineligible for the death penalty because he is mentally impaired. They also contend that he had poor legal counsel during his trial in 2000. His execution is scheduled for Oct 6.

Benjamin Robert Cole, Oklahoma

Sentenced to death in 2004 for killing his 9-month-old daughter, Brianna, by breaking her spine in half, Cole was one of seven inmates who  challenged Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure in Glossip vs. Gross, the case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cole admitted to police that he caused the fatal injuries. In his statement to officers, he said he had been trying to get Brianna to stop crying, grabbed her by the ankles and pushed her legs toward her head until she flipped over.

His attorneys argue that he suffers from schizophrenia and brain damage and is mentally incompetent. His execution is scheduled for Oct 7.

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