Thursday, December 31, 2009

The uneven hand of justice in TN murders

The uneven hand of justice in TN murders

Comparison of similar crimes leaves you wondering: Why is Gaile Owens facing execution?

By John Seigenthaler • December 20, 2009

John Seigenthaler is chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founded the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. He is former editor and publisher of The Tennessean.

There was no obvious link between the two recent national headlines

The other read: "Woman on death row loses her last appeal."

There are many striking factual similarities — and one stark difference — in the tragic stories of Mary Winkler and Gaile Owens, two Tennessee women who killed their abusive husbands 20 years apart.

Court documents in the separate cases recite the similarities:

• Both women, raised as fundamentalist Christians, suffered severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse from the spouses they killed.

• Both had small children — Winkler three daughters and Owens two sons — all younger than 12 at the time of the murders.

• Both of them were examined — some 20 years apart — by the same psychologist, Dr. Lynne Zager of Memphis, who said that both suffered from battered woman's syndrome — a condition that courts have recognized as "a female who is the victim of consistent, severe domestic violence."

• Both had concealed from relatives and close friends the suffering they endured at the hands of their husbands; both minimized the abuse when first questioned by police.

• Both were in financially troubled marriages and constantly were blamed by their husbands for being "spendthrift wives." Winkler had kited checks and argued with her husband about money the night before she killed him. Owens had stolen money from her employer, a doctor.

• Both women confessed when questioned by police, and both told the officers they blamed themselves for problems in their marriages.

• In both cases, the spousal abuse included lurid sexual details. In Owens' case, the sexual encounters were more violent and also involved her husband's extramarital affairs.

Mary Winkler's husband, Matthew, was a Church of Christ minister in Selmer in West Tennessee. In 2006, while he was in bed, she confronted him with a shotgun in an effort to discuss their marriage. With her children in the house, she shot him in the back, shattering his spine. Without calling 911, she left him to bleed to death while she drove with her daughters toward an Alabama beach.

Gaile Owens' husband, Ronald, was a nursing supervisor at Baptist Hospital in Memphis. He was beaten to death with a tire iron in 1985 by Sidney Porterfield, a complete stranger Gaile Owens hired on the streets of Memphis. He was never paid. Porterfield is on death row, and his most recent appeal asserts that he is mentally challenged.

Both women were invited at different times to tell their stories on Oprah Winfrey's show. Winkler did so. Owens declined.
The court documents also recite the stark difference in the two killings:

Mary Freeman Winkler, 36, indicted on charges of first-degree murder and convicted of voluntary manslaughter, served 67 days in a mental health facility after conviction and is now free. She has custody of her children and lives in McMinnville.

Gaile Kirksey Owens, 57, is due to be executed by lethal injection on death row at Tennessee State Prison. The state Supreme Court will soon set the date. Owens, who works as a clerk in the prison, would be the first woman executed by the state since Eve Martin, found guilty of murder, was hanged in 1820.

Judges, lawyers played part in differences
The dramatic difference in the sentences received by Winkler and Owens relates directly to the manner in which the two cases were tried, how their separate teams of lawyers handled their cases and how two different judges dealt with their "battered woman" defenses.

Winkler testified personally about the abuse she suffered. Her jury heard from her that she was subjected to mental and sexual abuse, forced by Matthew to watch pornographic films and required to wear seductive attire before having relations. The jurors also heard that she was required to engage in oral sex, which she believed to be "abnormal."

Owens did not take the witness stand in her own defense, so her jury did not hear her battered woman testimony nor about her spouse's cheating with a nurse who was his lover. Documents filed in her appeal detail the physical and emotional abuse that began on her wedding night and continued during marriage.

At the time of trial, Owens told her lawyers she would not testify in her own defense because she wanted to protect her young sons from the details of the sexual and emotional abuse she suffered from their father. Her lawyers say it is for this reason that she has consistently declined requests to tell her story to national news interviewers. The court documents disclose that the abuse included sexual penetration with objects that included a wine bottle and a marijuana pipe. Owens' husband accused her of not properly using birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. Just before the birth of their second son, as a result of rough sex, she suffered a torn

During a pre-trial motion, Emmons, in seeking help from psychologists, admitted that he knew little about the theory of battered woman syndrome. Judge McCartie told him to "school yourself, . . . either get into the books or talk to psychiatrists." Emmons withdrew from the case 30 days before trial, replaced by another Memphis lawyer, Brett Stein. At trial, Stein and Marty abandoned their battered woman defense and Owens' jurors heard not a word about the abuse she suffered. Two federal public defenders, Gretchen Swift and Kelley Henry, took over her appeal and submitted the first credible evidence that she was subjected to spousal abuse.

The clearest dichotomy between Owens' trial and Winkler's was related to their pleas. Winkler's jurors heard that she was "not guilty" on the grounds that she was a battered wife. Owens tried to plead guilty.

Expressing deep remorse for her actions, she told her lawyers she wanted to accept the prosecutor's offer: a guilty plea in return for a life sentence. She signed the plea-agreement document. But prosecutors then refused to accept it because Porterfield, the actual slayer, would not accept the same plea. Judge McCartie said he had "absolutely no authority" to accept her independent plea. Owens and Porterfield were tried together. The jury sentenced them to death.

As a result Gale Owens is the only inmate in Tennessee prison history to face execution after accepting a prosecutor's offer to plead guilty with a life sentence.

Other cases raise more questions
The history of fatal domestic violence cases in Tennessee courts provides other legalistic outcomes that make even more puzzling the plight of Gaile Owens.

In 1982, Kathryn England, a mother of four in Limestone in East Tennessee, murdered her husband, Frank, by punching a hole in the bedroom ceiling and shooting him with his hunting rifle. She remained in the upstairs room while her husband, pleading for help, bled to death.

The prosecution told her jury that the act was premeditated: that she had drugged him and planned the shot through the ceiling before the slaying. The jury rejected her spousal abuse claim and sentenced her to life in prison. She contracted cancer in prison and appealed to Gov. Lamar Alexander to commute her sentence on two grounds: she had been a battered woman and she was suffering from life-threatening cancer.

In 1984, Alexander commuted her life sentence to the 15 months she had served after a recommendation from the state parole board, and she was freed. Alexander, in granting her plea because of her illness, said of her battered woman defense: "There may be other cases where it should be considered as a basis for release." England, who has since died, married again three years after her release.

And then there is the Memphis case of William E. Groseclose, who hired two men to murder his wife, Deborah Lee, in 1977. He was convicted and sentenced to death along with Ronald Eugene Rickman, the man he paid to kill her.

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in rejecting an early appeal, described the slaying as "the most atrocious and inhuman conceivable." Rickman and a colleague, Phillip Michael Britt, kidnapped and raped Deborah Groseclose, stabbed her repeatedly in the back and left her in the trunk of a car in a Memphis parking lot. Groseclose and Rickman were sentenced to death. In 1997, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed their sentences on grounds that their lawyers had so bungled the defense that they had been effectively denied legal counsel. Both killers were re-sentenced to life.

Gaile Owens' appeals also contended that her lawyers were incompetent because they failed to introduce evidence of battered woman syndrome. In the Groseclose and Rickman cases, two of three federal judges, James Ryan and Damon Keith, found clear evidence that their lawyers failed them and reversed their convictions. A third judge, Richard Suhrheinrich, dissented.

In Gaile Owens' case, two of the three federal appeals judges, Danny Boggs and Eugene Siler, found that she did not cooperate with her lawyers and that they were competent. The third judge, Gilbert Merritt, found that her lawyers were unprepared and failed to give her an adequate defense. In federal appeals cases, two-judge majorities prevail. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case.

Within a few weeks, Gaile Owens will be the seventh inmate executed by lethal injection since 2000. The sixth, Cecil J. Johnson, died by lethal injection earlier this month.

In a letter written to Gov. Phil Bredesen earlier this year, Owens expressed her continuing remorse over her actions. Surprisingly, nowhere in the letter does she ask the governor to commute her death sentence to life.

George Barrett, who now is representing Owens, has joined Swift and Henry, the federal public defenders, in filing a formal plea asking the governor to commute her sentence to life in prison. That was the plea she tried to make in a Memphis trial court almost a quarter century ago.

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