Sunday, May 2, 2010

Influential Nashvillians, juror fight Gaile Owens' execution

Fulya Sobczak, a juror who voted for Gaile Owens to be put to death for killing her husband 25 years ago, now says she made the wrong decision.

Today, faced with new information that Gaile Owens may have been a battered woman trapped in a marriage of physical and sexual abuse, Sobczak believes Owens should not be executed.
"I really wish I'd had more information," Sobczak said. "She had abuse issues from her husband. … I feel like she should be given another chance."

The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the jury's death sentence, turned down Owens' appeals and set the 57-year-old woman's execution date for Sept. 28. The governor is the only one who can save her now, by commuting her death sentence to life in prison.
Owens' case has drawn together a team of influential, well-connected Nashvillians, including the high-powered public relations firm of McNeely Pigott & Fox, former Tennessean newspaper publisher John Seigenthaler Sr., Americana singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman and noted civil rights attorney George Barrett. They are joined by national and statewide women's organizations in the crusade to save her life.
They have taken up her case and her cause without charging the death row inmate one penny. They are motivated for different reasons: Some are against the death penalty and others are convinced Owens is a victim of a legal system that unfairly ignored the abuse she suffered during her 13-year marriage to Ron Owens.

Attorney George Barrett, who opposes capital punishment, is representing Owens for free.

Justice is not dispensed equally in Tennessee, they say, citing other cases in which Tennessee women killed their husbands and received lesser sentences.
Chief among their examples is the case of Mary Winkler, the West Tennessee woman who shot her preacher husband while he slept, then fled the state with their three young daughters. Winkler also claimed she was a battered woman, forced to watch pornography, wear clothing she considered inappropriate and perform what she said were unnatural sexual acts.
Winkler was sentenced to 67 days in a mental health facility for voluntary manslaughter.
The difference between the Winkler case and Owens' case is that Winkler told jurors about her abuse, but Owens would not testify, and the jury never heard about any abuse from other defense witnesses.
No one is suggesting Owens is innocent. She has admitted her guilt, both to police in 1985 and in a letter she sent to Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2009.
"Gaile has accepted responsibility," said Kelley Henry, an assistant federal public defender working with Owens.
The campaign to spare Owens' life is about evenhanded justice, Henry says.
"I've pled people guilty to murder for life in prison who did things much worse than this," Henry said. "She's not a monster. Anyone who knows her knows in their heart that executing her would be the greatest injustice."

Ron Owens was associate director of nursing at a Memphis hospital before his murder.

Ron Owens, 37, was a hospital nurse who worked through the ranks to become associate director of nursing at Baptist Hospital in Memphis. After Sunday services at Abundant Life Fellowship Church, he often stayed late to play basketball. He coached teenagers.
He stayed behind on Feb. 17, 1985, to play ball while his wife and two sons, ages 12 and 8, went to her sister's house to play board games and eat tacos.
Gaile Owens and her children arrived home after 11 p.m. and found a bloodied Ron Owens dying on the living room floor. He had suffered a savage beating and died a few hours later at the hospital.

During the earliest stages of the investigation, police thought robbery was the motive. That changed a few days later, when a man called a federal agent with a tip.
Detectives learned Owens had spent months cruising crime-ridden neighborhoods in Memphis offering $5,000 to $10,000 to just about anyone who would talk with her about killing her husband.
"I told them we were having problems," she said in a police statement, "and that it had been going on for years, and I wanted it taken care of."
She handed out keys to their home, photos of Ron Owens and outlines of his daily schedule.
Her bizarre pitch drew laughs from strangers.

“She was the laughingstock of the corner," testified George Sykes, one of the men Owens approached. "All the fellows on the corner was talking about how she's giving up money, and they would just promise her anything."
Court records show Owens gave money to men who promised to do the job but never followed through with it.
But she was persistent. She found a mechanic and ex-con named Sidney Porterfield who ran a garage at Second and Marble in Memphis.
They discussed fees for the killing ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, but they never agreed on an actual amount. They didn't discuss the manner of death. That was left up to the killer.
She and Porterfield met again on Feb. 17, 1985. They discussed the murder, but Owens told police she left thinking it wasn't going to happen.
But that night, while the woman and her children were at her sister's house, Porterfield went to the Owenses' home on Scepter Drive and pummeled Ron Owens 21 times with a tire iron.

Police arrested Owens five days after the murder.
She admitted she had been looking for a hit man, though she said she didn't know on Feb. 17 that her husband was going to die that day, records show. "I just didn't want anything done in front of the kids," she said. "I'm sorry. I wish I'd never done it."
When detectives asked her why she wanted him killed, Owens said, "I really don't know, except that I felt like I had had all I could take over the years, just the mental abuse I felt like I had been through."
But she said there was "very little physical violence."

Later, attorneys and psychological examiners pulled details out of Owens that cast the couple's relationship in a different light. Her lawyers said she had been coerced into sexual acts that actually made her throw up, and sex so rough it injured her. There was no proof, they said, because Owens did not seek medical treatment.
During a hearing three months before her trial, Owens' court-appointed attorneys asked a judge for money to pay for a psychological exam because they believed she had been abused. He agreed to appoint a psychiatrist to examine her but did not let her defense team choose its own specialist
Lynne Zager, a psychiatrist who talked to Owens later that month, said in court paperwork that Owens talked of her husband's affairs, sexual humiliation and "overall mistreatment of her." Though Owens never told her she was physically or sexually abused, Zager said she believed Owens had been battered.

But none of the details about her abuse ever came out during her trial. Court documents say Owens hamstrung her defense by refusing to testify or let her attorneys interview family members who might have known. Zager was never called to testify during her trial.
Owens' current defense team has said her lawyers should have found a way to get those details into her trial.

Leslie Ballin, the criminal defense attorney who represented Mary Winkler, agreed. "Certainly, hindsight is 20/20. But it seems like it should have been presented to the jury," Ballin said.
Brett Stein, one of Owens' lawyers in 1986, did not return calls for comment about the case. Her other attorney, James Marty, could not be reached.
But if Owens wouldn't talk, legal experts say, there may have been little they could do.
"The way that I approach a defense is, this is the client's vessel, and I am the captain of that vessel," Ballin said. If the case seems headed toward dangerous water, he said, he'll advise the client to consider another option.
"At the end of the day, it is still the client's case."
If Winkler hadn't talked about the abuse, Ballin said, the jury would have been left with the cold facts of the shooting.
"What's a jury going to do? Convict as charged," he said.

At trial, Assistant District Attorney Don Strother told the jury Owens had her husband killed over money. She had been caught embezzling money from employers, he said, and owed thousands. She hid the debts from her husband, Strother said, for fear he would leave her and take the children.
There "was one way and one way only … to salvage her way of life," Strother told the jury, "and that was to have her husband killed and collect the insurance money." In all, court records show, Ron Owens had about $115,000 in life insurance coverage.
Plea deal fell through
Early on, her attorneys said, Owens expressed a desire to plead guilty so that her family wouldn't have to live through a trial.

On Jan. 3, 1986, prosecutors offered her life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. But it came with a big caveat: Porterfield had to plead guilty, too. Though defense attorneys asked for separate trials for Owens and Porterfield, the district attorney's office wanted to try them together because they conspired to kill Ron Owens.
Owens took the deal the day it was offered. But Porterfield refused, and the bargain was taken off the table. Later, she tried to plead guilty in court but the judge would not separate her case from Porterfield's — they had to go to trial together or plead together.
Today, her attorneys say she should have been allowed to take the deal and avoid death row.

"I don't think it's reasonable for them to make (the deal) contingent on somebody she had no control over," assistant federal public defender Henry said.
It isn't uncommon in criminal cases for pleas to fall apart that way, said University of Tennessee law professor Jerry Black, president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. What makes this one unusual is the fact that the death penalty was in play.

Black's legal association has filed a court brief supporting Owens on the plea issue. He and others say that Porterfield was mentally ill, and that his refusal to plea forced the woman to trial.
"She has no control over" Porterfield, Black said.
"The death penalty is for the worst of the worst," he said. "If you are going to offer her a life sentence, there is some indication the state didn't think she was one of those people."
Because of the abuse issues raised in her later appeals, Owens' supporters are convinced she does not deserve the ultimate punishment.
The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Nashville YWCA, which runs the largest domestic violence shelter in Nashville, are pleading for her life.
Others who have met with her say they are captivated by the woman they describe as demure, friendly and a typical grandmother.

Stephen Owens speaks at a news conference for his mother, Gaile Owens. Joining Owens are attorney George Barrett, left, Pamela Sessions of the YWCA, and three friends of Gaile Owens: singer Marshall Chapman and Gene and Pat Williams

Katy Varney, a partner in the public relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox, learned about Owens' case through an attorney friend. Varney read Owens' case file and decided she wanted to meet her.
"I entered into the relationship simply as a friend," Varney said. Seeing firsthand Owens' determination to shelter her children, even at the cost of her own life, and her ability to create a life with purpose and meaning on death row has been inspiring.

Eventually, Varney told others at the PR firm about the case, and a group of volunteers at the firm started working on her behalf for free. She said the firm's work is not meant to be a statement on capital punishment.
"We see our work in this case as supporting an individual who, through the twists and turns of our court system, has suffered disproportionably," Varney said.
Before joining the firm, Varney worked on the White House advance staffs of then-first lady Rosalyn Carter and later Vice President Walter Mondale. She was Gov. Ned McWherter's chief lobbyist. Her husband, Dave Goetz, is commissioner of the state Department of Finance and Administration.

Nashville attorney George Barrett got involved in the case after public defenders asked for his help and he found the evidence in Owens' favor appealing.
He opposes capital punishment and has worked on other death penalty cases, including the executions of Robert Glen Coe in 2000 and Phillip Workman in 2007.
Last year, Owens' defense team and supporters approached John Seigenthaler Sr., former editor and publisher of The Tennessean, and asked him to help. Seigenthaler, the newspaper's chairman emeritus, opposes the death penalty.
As he met with Owens and learned more about her, he said, he developed an emotional attachment and became an advocate for mercy.

"It's hard for me to figure out why (execution) makes sense in her case," he said. "I just have, in my gut, a sense that everything that happened in her case and everything that has happened since offends equal justice under the law."
Singer Marshall Chapman met Owens in 1993, when Chapman was getting ready to perform a concert at the Tennessee Prison for Women. She said Owens had helped prepare a fruit plate and offered her a snack. The two became pen pals and stayed in touch.

"I've grown to love her as a friend," Chapman said during a recent meeting with reporters. "She made a horrible mistake many years ago, but I feel like she's paid the price. Forget commutation. She should be pardoned."

Owens' attorneys have exhausted every legal maneuver at their disposal, with no success.
Now, their race against time pushes them to look elsewhere for relief.
Part of their strategy involves contacting the jurors in the trial who sentenced Owens to death.
About six months ago, they called the juror Sobczak, who is now 50 years old and still living in the Memphis area.
At their request, Sobczak wrote a letter to the governor asking for mercy. She did it, she said, to clear her conscience.

Sobczak said the experience of sitting on a capital case jury gave her nightmares and forced her into therapy. Thomas Bateman, another juror on the case, said he developed bleeding ulcers after the trial that still plague him today.

"I think it was a big deal for the whole jury," said Bateman, 65. "I remember a lot of people in the jury room actually crying when we had to rule on life or death for those people."
Bateman said he doesn't dwell on the verdict today. He's unsure what weight Owens' recent arguments would have carried in 1986.
"You don't reach those decisions without evidence. It would have been another part of the evidence to be considered," he said.

For Stephen Owens, who walked in and found his father 25 years ago, the case is about forgiveness. He said last week that he forgave his mother last year after spending two decades trying to find peace. "The harsh reality is that both of my parents have been absent from my life," said Stephen Owens, 37, who lives in Franklin. "Sparing my mother's life can change that reality."

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article. It was a miracle I feel that the people have came into Gaile Owens' life such as the volunteer team of lawyers and many others.
    Ann from Nashville