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.

Tennessee inches closer to joining states that have put women inmates to death

Tennessee inches closer to joining states that have put women inmates to death

Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 12:01am

Gaile K. Owens
In 1985, allegedly abusive husband Ronald Owens was beaten to death in a gruesome murder-for-hire scheme in Shelby County by a man his wife paid $17,000. Now, his former wife, Gaile K. Owens, sits on Tennessee’s death row, and could become only the 12th woman in the last 30-plus years to be executed in the United States.

Owens was convicted in 1988 in Shelby County of hiring Sidney Porterfield to murder Ronald Owens. Both sit on death row for a crime court records suggest was violent and savage. The crime began with Gaile Owens openly soliciting men to kill her husband. Records in the State v. Porterfield, 746 S.W. 2d 441 (Tenn. 1988), showed that she met with one of the would-be hitmen, Sidney Porterfield, at least three times.

“Ronald Owens was found in the family’s den on February 17, 1985, with his skull smashed from at least 21 blows from a tire iron,” the court record states. “He had been beaten with so much force that fragments of his skull had been driven into his brain and his face had been driven into the floor. Blood was splattered over the walls and floor. A pathologist’s report showed extensive injuries to his hands, indicating that he had been trying to cover his head with his hands during the savage attack.”

Owens’ case, though, is becoming a rallying point for anti-death penalty forces in Tennessee looking to reverse a recent trend of executions in the state under Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

“I recognize that because Owens is a woman there may be more attention given to her as it is rare for a woman to be sentenced to death,” conceded Stacy Rector, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK). “Tennessee has only two women on its death row. However, I hope that citizens will not only pay close attention to the Owens case but also to the other troubling capital cases in Tennessee which demonstrate the brokenness of the death penalty system in our state.”

Last week, in a 2-1 decision, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s decision to implement the death penalty despite the vehement objections of Judge Gil Merritt, a Nashville resident.

In writing the dissenting opinion, Merritt lambasted his colleagues and accused the state of withholding evidence at trial, that Owens had ineffective counsel, that her rights were denied in trial and addressed a myriad of other problems he found with the case.

There are allegations in the court documents, accepted by Merritt and dismissed by his colleagues, that Gaile Owens suffered significant sexual and physical violence for years during her marriage to Ronald Owens.

There are several legal options keeping Owens from Tennessee’s death chamber. Her case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for further appeal. In addition, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger has in place an opinion ruling Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol unconstitutional, effectively stopping the state at present from executing anyone via lethal injection.

Politically, Owens’ fate rests in the hands of Gov. Phil Bredesen or more likely his successor.

The State of Tennessee is a staunchly pro-death penalty state that has executed four men since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976 — three of them under Bredesen including the controversial electrocution of Daryl K. Holton last year. Nationally, there have been 1,136 executions in that same time frame. Only 11 of those executed have been women. There are currently 87 people on death row in Tennessee, two of them are women.

In many cases, executing a woman has tested the resolve of proponents of state executions, perhaps none more so than the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas.

Tucker became a cause célèbre despite having been convicted of killing another woman with a pickaxe. Prominent figures from then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to televangelist Pat Robertson championed her cause and asked then Texas Gov. George W. Bush to commute her sentence. Bush let the execution go through on Feb. 3, 1998.

Did conservatives like Gingrich and Robertson support clemency because Tucker had become a devout Christian while incarcerated or because they believed that she had been reformed? Many men who have walked the “last mile” have claimed religion and reform before their demise, without the support of God’s gatekeepers. Was their support forthcoming because it involved executing a woman? In the decade since Tucker’s execution the questions remain.

There is no question that Owens is guilty of murder-for-hire. She had been willing to accept a plea bargain originally offered to her by prosecutors if she and her accomplice Porterfield pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of life without parole. Porterfield rolled the dice and rejected the offer, landing them both on death row.

Still, Rector and others maintain the problems they see in the Owens case are reflected in most of Tennessee’s death row cases.

“The case of Gaile Owens is a tragic story of abuse and murder which has caused her family and community great suffering,” Rector said. “At the same time, Owens sentence is also very problematic given the lack of adequate representation she received at trial as well as the prosecutor’s failure to turn over important evidence to the defense. Even more troubling, the problems highlighted in this case are not isolated ones since many of the other nearly 100 individuals on Tennessee’s death row have similar issues in their cases.”

The case will continue to wind through the legal process and judges will ponder Owens’ fate as well as the future of Tennessee’s lethal injection procedure. Meanwhile, Bredesen and every possible candidate for governor in 2010 will have to decide what they will do if the courts put the final decision in their hands.

Delay sought in Gaile Owens' death penalty case

Delay sought in Gaile Owens' death penalty case

Attorneys for death row inmate Gaile Owens have asked for more time to prepare a defense against a request to set her execution date.

The state attorney general's office requested an execution date for Owens early this month after her final appeal was rejected. Owens was sentenced to death in 1986 for hiring a man to kill her husband, Ronald Owens. Sidney Porterfield was convicted of carrying out the hit for Owens and is also on death row.

Owens, 57, was the first woman sentenced to death under Tennessee's 1977 death penalty law.
Her lawyers have asked the Tennessee Supreme Court for an extension until Feb. 5 to argue for a commuted sentence, saying that she was forced to trial despite agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence and that no court has fairly considered evidence that she was abused by her husband.

Woman on TN death row awaits execution date from court

Woman on TN death row awaits execution date from court

By Kate Howard • THE TENNESSEAN • December 9, 2009

The state attorney general's office has asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to set an execution date for one of the two women on death row.

Gaile Owens was convicted in 1986 of accessory before the fact of first-degree murder for having her husband killed in West Tennessee.

Ronald Owens was beaten to death; Sidney Porterfield was convicted of carrying out the slaying for Owens. Porterfield is also on death row.

Owens' appeals have been exhausted, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied her request for a re-hearing on Nov. 30. The state requested Tuesday that a date be set for her execution.

Owens, 57, was the first woman sentenced to death under Tennessee's 1977 death penalty law.
Her appeal was denied 2-1 by a panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals last year. Her attorneys had argued that she had ineffective representation, that the state didn't turn over key evidence and that the trial judge wouldn't let her tell the jury she wanted to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.

Another woman, Christa Pike, is on death fow for killing fellow Job Corps worker Colleen Slemmer in 1995.

There have been seven executions in Tennessee since 2000, the most recent was last week. Cecil C. Johnson Jr., was executed by lethal injection for the 1980 murders of three people during a robbery at a Nashville market

Contact Kate Howard at or