Washington - The US state of Georgia executed its first woman in 70 years early Wednesday, despite an appeal for clemency by Pope Francis.
Kelly Gissendaner, 47, made a statement and requested a prayer before she was put to death by lethal injection after a flurry of last minute appeals.
"At 12:21 am the court-ordered execution of Kelly Gissendaner was carried out in accordance with state law," said Gwendolyn Hogan, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Gissendaner was the first woman to be executed in the southern state since 1945, and the 16th nationwide since the Supreme Court re-established the death penalty in 1976.
She was sentenced to death after being found guilty of conspiring to murder her husband in 1997.
Her execution was initially scheduled for 7 pm Tuesday (2300 GMT), but was delayed as her lawyers sought an 11th hour reprieve in filings before a federal court of appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court, to no avail.
Dozens of supporters and death penalty opponents kept vigil outside the state prison in Jackson, Georgia as Gissendaner awaited her fate.
"If you wanted proof that the death penalty is torture, look no further than #KellyGissendaner waiting hours to see if she'll live or die," Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty advocate, wrote on her Twitter account.
- A papal appeal for mercy -
Hers was the first execution of a US inmate since Pope Francis called for the global abolition of the death penalty in his speech to the US Congress last week.
The pope's personal representative sent a letter to Georgia's parole board on Tuesday making "an urgent appeal" to commute Gissendaner's sentence to "one that would better express both justice and mercy."
"Please be assured of my prayers as you consider this request by Pope Francis for what I believe would be a just act of clemency," Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano wrote.
Gissendaner's supporters have argued she was a changed woman who found God behind bars.
Yet, she watched from her car as her boyfriend Gregory Owen murdered her husband, and she had planned to profit from the death by cashing in an insurance policy.
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Owen confessed to beating and stabbing Douglas Gissendaner and then trying to make the murder look like a robbery.
He negotiated a plea deal with prosecutors and was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Gissendaner turned down the deal, which meant her case went before a jury.
"The outcome illustrates one of the fundamental flaws with the death penalty -- it's applied arbitrarily," said Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International, which is among a number of groups that called for her sentence to be commuted to life in prison.
Gissendaner's daughter and two sons urged officials to spare their mother's life in a statement earlier this month.
"We've lost our dad. We can't imagine losing our mom too."
This was the third time Gissendaner's children and supporters had gone through the ordeal of a death watch.
Gissendaner was set to die in February, but the execution was cancelled due to a snow storm. A month later it was again called off because the lethal injection drug officials planned to use, pentobarbital, was uncharacteristically cloudy.
Three botched US executions in 2014 -- in which the condemned men could be seen gasping for air and writhing in pain -- have led to increased scrutiny of the drugs being used and reignited the debate over capital punishment.
- More executions this week -
Two more death row inmates are scheduled to die this week.
On Wednesday, Richard Glossip, 52, faces death by lethal injection in Oklahoma for the 1997 murder of a motel owner, a crime he denies committing.
A campaign to save him has drawn the support of a number of celebrities, including actress Susan Sarandon and billionaire Richard Branson.
On Thursday, Virginia is scheduled to put to death Alfredo Prieto, a Salvadoran immigrant who was convicted of three murders and linked to six others.
His lawyers say he is mentally handicapped and should be spared the death penalty. On Tuesday, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a body of the Organization of American States, called for a stay of execution.