Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Owens' Case Cries Out For Mercy

Owens' Case Cries Out For Mercy

The Tennessean

APRIL 21, 2010

Our View

The Tennessee Supreme Court issued a disappointing decision Monday
when it set a Sept. 28 execution date for Gaile Owens, rejecting
attorneys' argument that her death sentence should be changed to life
in prison.

Now the ball is in Gov. Phil Bredesen's hands. While the governor has
allowed the death sentence to be carried out five times since he took
office in January 2003, Owens' case clearly merits a commutation to
life in prison.

"I'm very hopeful that the governor will look at the fact that Gaile
Owens' jury did not know domestic violence was involved in her case,
nor did it know that she had agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a
life sentence,'' said Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans
for an Alternative to the Death Penalty. "She has been remorseful
since coming to prison 23 years ago, a model inmate, from everything
I've heard, and her sentence is disproportionate to similar crimes.

"It doesn't seem that anyone would be served by putting her to death.''

No, it doesn't. And while members of the state's highest court said
Monday that it cannot consider facts outside the court record, it
noted that Bredesen is not constrained by those limitations.

A request for Owens' clemency is said to already have been sent to
Bredesen. Those familiar with the case of the 57-year-old Memphis
woman who was convicted of soliciting the 1985 murder of her husband,
Ronald, say she suffered severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse
from her spouse.

At the time of her trial, Owens did not take the witness stand to
testify in her own defense because, her attorneys said, she wanted to
protect her young sons, both of whom are now grown, from details of
abuse she suffered at the hands of their father.

She did, however, agree to plead guilty to the murder charges, but
the original offer of a life sentence from prosecutors was taken back
because her co-defendant, Sidney Porterfield, also on death row,
wanted to go to trial.

If convicted, Owens would become the first woman to be put to death
by the state of Tennessee since Eve Martin was hanged for murder in

But a number of people and organizations have come to her aid, urging
Bredesen not to allow the execution.

"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,'' Nancy S. Jones, chairwoman of
the Advocacy Committee of the YWCA Board of Directors in Nashville,
wrote in this newspaper in February. "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, she wouldn't be on death row.''

Gov. Bredesen should listen to such comments as he considers Owens'
clemency appeal. He should also consider the fact that there have
been several other cases in Tennessee, most recently that of Mary
Winkler, where women killed their husbands because of alleged
domestic violence, but they are not on Tennessee's death row.

In fact, two of these women are now on parole. Owens is not asking
for parole, only that her death sentence be commuted to life in
prison. As a battered wife, she deserves at least that — not to be
put to death.

Gaile Owens' son asks Bredesen to spare DR inmate's life

Gaile Owens' son asks Bredesen to spare death row inmate's life
Stephen Owens says she is remorseful

Stephen Owens walked into the Tennessee Prison for Women last year
and saw his mother for the first time in more than two decades.
She had spent almost 25 years behind bars, awaiting execution for the
murder of her husband, Ronald Owens. She had killed his father, but
Stephen Owens still found the strength to tell her, "I forgive you.''

Tuesday, the 37-year-old Franklin man made a public plea for Gov.
Phil Bredesen to do the same by commuting Gaile K. Owens' death

"Mom is extremely remorseful and regretful. She has spent the past 25
years suffering her consequences. She has also spent the past 25
years reforming her life," Stephen Owens said, reading from a
prepared statement at the offices of his mother's attorneys.

Owens, 57, is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 28 for hiring another
man, Sidney Porterfield, to kill her husband in Shelby County in
1985. Her attorneys and supporters have said she was unfairly
sentenced to death because the jury never knew she was a battered
woman looking for a way to escape her abusive marriage. Owens could
not bring herself to tell jurors about the abuse because she wanted
to protect her children from the details, her defenders have said.
Tennessee's Supreme Court ruled Monday that it could not commute her
sentence, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear her case.

The state Supreme Court said it could intervene only under
extraordinary, extenuating circumstances, and the new evidence did
not meet that test. The court made it clear that the governor has
more leeway.

"I'm confident after the legislature adjourns he'll turn his
attention to this issue,'' said Owens' attorney George Barrett. "I
think he'll do what he thinks is the right thing."

Lydia Lenker, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Bredesen had
received Owens' clemency petition.

"As he does in each of these situations, the Governor is reviewing
the document but hasn't made a decision on the matter," she said.

Owens would be the first woman executed in Tennessee since 1820.

Since 1980, Barrett said, more than 25 women have been convicted of
killing their husbands or having them killed. "Not a single one of
them except Gaile Owens has received the death sentence," he said.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry, who is working on
Owens' case, said her defense attorneys could have found others to
testify about the abuse, but that did not happen.

Stephen B. Shankman, Owens' first defense attorney, said in a 1991
affidavit that Owens "was extraordinarily remorseful for hiring
someone to kill her husband." Ultimately, Owens wasn't able to pay
Shankman's legal fees, he said, so the court appointed other lawyers
to represent her.

Plea Deal Was Offered

Owens' "most immediate and profound concern was the well-being of her
children," Shankman said. "Ms. Owens was clear. She wanted to plead
guilty and avoid a trial because she didn't want to put her children
and the rest of her family through any more pain."

In a letter dated Jan. 3, 1986, prosecutors offered Owens life in
prison in exchange for a plea of guilty. The offer came with two
stipulations: It had to be accepted that day, and Porterfield had to
agree to a similar offer.
Owens took the offer, but Porterfield insisted on going to trial, so
prosecutors threw out the deal.

"That's an extraordinary injustice," Henry said.

Don Strother, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Owens 25
years ago, said he couldn't remember the plea agreement. His
signature appears at the bottom of the letter to Owens.

Strother said he had never heard about Owens' abuse.

"It was prosecuted fairly. Everything was done by the book," Strother
said Tuesday. "Hugh Stanton (the district attorney in Memphis at the
time) didn't put up with people in his office engaging in chicanery.
I wouldn't put up with people engaging in chicanery."

Strother said he believed, then and now, that Owens deserved the
death penalty. He said she was tried as a spendthrift whose husband
was preparing to divorce her over financial issues.

This woman went for months shopping around and looking for someone to
kill her husband," Strother said.

Prosecutors told jurors that Owens killed her husband to collect an
insurance policy because she was in financial trouble.

Owens Admits Her Guilt

In a handwritten letter to Bredesen last summer, Owens admitted to
"putting the wheels in motion that resulted in Ron's death."

"The weight of being responsible for the pain of my sons and their
life without a father can choke the breath out of me," she wrote.
"There is not a sentence or any amount of time that would be enough
to end the pain, guilt and shame that I feel."

Bredesen has commuted one death sentence as governor. In 2007, he
changed convicted robber and killer Michael Joe Boyd's sentence from
death to life in prison, citing "grossly inadequate legal
representation" during his post-conviction hearing. Five men have
been executed during Bredesen's time as governor. Four of them asked
for reprieves.

Barrett said he hoped Boyd's case set a precedent that could help Owens.

"The harsh reality is that both of my parents have been absent from
my life," said Stephen Owens. "Sparing my mother's life can change
that reality. … Please do not allow a death sentence to be the legacy
of my family.

"It has taken me more than 20 years to reconcile and find peace," he
said. "I understand it is difficult to comprehend forgiveness on this
level. The only explanation I can offer is through my faith in God.

"There is no justice in taking her life," Stephen Owens said. "There
is no justice in denying the healing power of forgiveness."

Contact Clay Carey at 615-726-5933 or

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gaile Owens supporters begin pitch to get her off Tennessee's death row

Gaile Owens supporters begin pitch to get her off Tennessee's death row

By Richard Locker
Posted April 20, 2010

NASHVILLE – Supporters of Gaile Owens – who faces execution Sept. 28
for the contract murder of her husband -- turned their hopes toward
Gov. Phil Bredesen today with a request to commute her death sentence
to life in prison or release.

Her son spoke publicly for the first time in a press conference held
by his mother’s attorneys and supporters. “My statement today is a
public plea to Gov. Bredesen to spare my mother’s life,” said Stephen
Owens, 37, of Franklin, who visited her last year for the first time
in more than 20 years.

“I looked my mother in the eyes and told her I forgive her. Mom is
extremely remorseful and regretful. She has spent the past 25 years
suffering her consequences. She has also spent the past 25 years
reforming her life.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court on Monday denied Gaile Owens’ request to
vacate her Shelby County death sentence and modify it to life in
imprison, saying that it is lacked the authority to do so and is
bound by evidentiary limitations. It scheduled her execution for 10
p.m. Sept. 28.

But the 2 1/2-page order noted that “The governor is not constrained
by the same evidentiary limitations that guide our decisions,” and
that “accordingly, our decision to decline to issue a certificate of
commutation does not foreclose or affect the governor’s exercise of
his clemency power” under the Tennessee Constitution.

Owens was convicted of hiring Sydney Porterfield to kill her husband,
Ronald Owens, who was beaten to death with a tire iron in their
Bartlett home in 1985.

The press conference at the law office of high-profile Nashville
attorney George Barrett is part of a combined legal and public
relations campaign aimed at saving Owens’ life. Nashville singer-
songwriter Marshall Chapman, and others who have befriended Owens on
weekly volunteer visits at the Tennessee Prison for Women were
present, along with Asst. Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry and
the defendant’s son. Husband and wife volunteers Gene and Pat
Williams have created a website,, to help
build support for a gubernatorial commutation.

“We’re here for two reasons. One, the unfairness of the treatment of
Ms. Owens by the judicial system in this state, and two, the
unfairness of the sentence given to her,” Barrett said.

“There have been 26 women tried and convicted in Tennessee for either
killing or arranging the killing of their spouse and not a single one
of them until Gaile Owens received the death penalty. She agreed to
plead guilty prior to her trial in Memphis and was forbid from doing
so by a quirk in the judicial system because her co-defendant Mr.
Porterfield would not plead guilty. Mr. Porterfield is now on death
row claiming mental retardation since birth.

“Secondly we’re here because of proportionality of the sentence given
to her,” Barrett continued. “She’s a battered woman. She has battered
woman syndrome. That issue has never been tried before any court
despite an abundance of evidence. We think this is an ideal situation
for the governor to use his constitutional powers to grant commutation.”

Henry, who is Owens’ post conviction attorney, told reporters that
she’s been doing death penalty work for 20 years “and the Gaile Owens
case stands apart from every other case I’ve been involved in as an
attorney. Ms. Owens is the only inmate in this country that I’ve been
able to find who accepted a plea offer of life in prison and yet
ended up sentenced to death.

“That’s an extraordinary injustice in this case and one that does not
apply to any other inmate in this country, male or female.”

Barrett said he has not discussed the case directly with Bredesen but
with the governor’s legal counsel. Barrett said he expects the
governor to turn his attention to the commutation request after the
state legislature adjourns, probably next month.

Son fighting for Mom Gaile Owens

Stephan is fighting for his mother.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Supreme Court sets execution date for death row inmate Gaile Owens

Supreme Court sets
execution date for death row
inmate Gaile Owens

By Clay Carey • THE TENNESSEAN • April 19,

The Tennessee Supreme Court has set an execution
date for Gaile K. Owens, one of two women on the
state’s Death Row.

Owens, 57, will be put to death at 10 p.m. on Sept.
28, according to an order issued by the court today.

She was given the death penalty for soliciting the
1985 murder of husband Ronald Owens.

Owens’ attorneys had filed paperwork asking that
her sentence be commuted to life in prison. If she is
put to death later this year, she will be the first
woman executed by the state since 1820.