Wednesday, April 21, 2010

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

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