Does battered woman deserve execution?
Tennessee VoicesI don't know Gaile Owens, but I feel like I do. At the YWCA we work with some women like Gaile who suffer from trauma as severe as battered woman syndrome, a serious mental disorder that mental health professionals and courts have recognized in women who are the victims of consistent, severe domestic violence.
Out of respect for Gaile, who is now awaiting an execution date for arranging the 1984 murder of her abusive husband, I am not going to share the horrid details of how she suffered. She never testified in her own defense in order to protect her children from those details, and I will honor her silence.
Suffice it to say that Gaile has been diagnosed with battered woman syndrome, according to court documents and a recent thorough assessment by Jan Vogelsang, a licensed clinical social worker with almost 30 years of experience in this area. YWCA domestic violence staff describe the symptoms of battered woman syndrome as a high level of anxiety that interrupts normal life, repeated reliving of painful abusive episodes, inability to develop and maintain healthy relationships, and an acute sense of isolation. Does this disorder excuse her criminal conduct? Absolutely not.
Help not available back then
The YWCA supports thousands of Middle Tennessee victims of domestic violence each year, and we never advocate violence as an appropriate response to an abusive relationship. Instead, we provide counseling, shelter, support groups, resources — all things that were unavailable to Gaile in Memphis 26 years ago, when many cities were in the early stages of recognizing and addressing domestic violence.
I firmly believe that if Gaile had had access to resources like these in 1984, she wouldn't be on death row. We couldn't be there to help her then, but we can help her now.
Because of our work in domestic violence in Middle Tennessee, members of the YWCA board of directors have been moved to speak out on behalf of Gaile. In doing so, we take no position on the appropriateness of the death penalty as a punishment for criminal conduct. We do question, however, whether Gaile's case rises to the level of a capital crime, given the outcome of comparable cases that resulted in probation or early parole.
Gaile has never denied her guilt. She isn't asking for a pardon. Her attorneys are asking for commutation of her sentence to life in prison, which was the original deal she arranged with the prosecutor 25 years ago. Unless the Tennessee Supreme Court or Gov. Phil Bredesen provides relief from the death sentence, we will be executing a battered woman.
Nancy S. Jones is chairwoman, Advocacy Committee, YWCA Board of Directors in Nashville.