Monday, May 3, 2010

Tenn. woman on death row seeks reprieve

By Clay Carey, USA TODAY
May 3, 2010

Ron Owens lay bleeding on the floor of his suburban Memphis home on Feb. 17, 1985, when his two young sons walked in and found him, court records show.
He had been beaten with a tire iron, prosecutors said, by hit man Sidney Porterfield, who had been recruited by Owens' wife, Gaile.

Gaile Owens admitted to police that she spent months driving through seedy Memphis neighborhoods looking for someone to kill her husband for a few thousand dollars. She was arrested, tried and sentenced to death the next year.

Unless Owens, now 57, wins a reprieve from Democratic Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen before Sept. 28, she will be the first woman put to death by the state since 1820 — by lethal injection, the state's current method, or electrocution, the method when she was convicted.

With the execution date set, Owens' family, friends, supporters and legal team have stepped up their efforts to get her sentence commuted. They have been updating supporters on a Facebook page dedicated to the cause with nearly 1,500 fans. Owens' son, Stephen, 37, who was 12 when he discovered his father's beaten body, spoke publicly about his mother for the first time April 20, asking the governor for forgiveness.

The other son, Brian, 8 at the time of the murder, has not spoken publicly.

Owens' attorneys argue that she was unfairly denied an opportunity to plead guilty in 1986 to arranging the murder in exchange for life in prison. They say the jury that sentenced her to die never heard a crucial piece of evidence: that she suffered from battered wife syndrome after years of physical and mental abuse by her husband.

Because those arguments weren't part of her original trial, her attorneys said, they couldn't be considered by state appeals courts. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case.

Owens has turned down interview requests. In a letter to the governor last year, she said she was responsible for setting into motion the events that led to her husband's death. "There is not a sentence or any amount of time that would be enough to end the pain, guilt and shame that I feel," she wrote.

On the day she was arrested, court records show, Owens told police that she and her husband had a bad marriage for years and that he had been cruel to her. She said there was "very little physical violence."

Later, court documents say, she told her lawyers she had been coerced into sexual acts that made her vomit and sex so rough it injured her. There was no proof, they said, because Owens didn't seek medical treatment.

Court documents say Owens hamstrung her defense by refusing to testify or let her attorneys interview family members who might have known. Kelley Henry, an assistant federal public defender working with Owens, said Owens didn't want her family to hear the details of her abuse.

Prosecutors offered her life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea, records show. But it came with the caveat that Porterfield had to plead guilty, too. Owens took the deal, Porterfield refused, and it was withdrawn.

The last woman executed in the USA was Frances Newton, who was put to death in Texas by lethal injection in September 2005, said Richard Dieter, director of the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center. Newton was convicted of killing her husband and two children in 1987.

Owens has exhausted her legal appeals, Henry said, and her last hope lies with Bredesen. Lydia Lenker, a spokeswoman for Bredesen, said the governor is considering her request.

Don Strother, the assistant Shelby County district attorney who prosecuted Owens 24 years ago, still believes the death penalty is appropriate for her.

"This woman went for months shopping and looking for someone to kill her husband," Strother said. "It was prosecuted fairly. Everything was done by the book."

Fulya Sobczak, 50, was on the Memphis jury that convicted Owens in 1986. At the time, she said, Owens put up little defense and the jury was left with little besides the gory details of the crime.

At the request of Owens' attorneys, she said, she recently wrote a letter to the governor asking for mercy. She did it, she said, to clear her conscience.

"I really wish I'd had more information" at the time of the trial, she said. "She had abuse issues from her husband. ... I feel like she should be given another chance."

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