NASHVILLE — Gov. Phil Bredesen today commuted Gaile Owens’s 1986 Shelby County death sentence to life in prison.
Her execution was scheduled for Sept. 28.
With sentence credits, she could be eligible to ask the state Board of Paroles to consider her release from prison as soon as late 2011, although there is no guarantee the board would grant release at that time.
Owens, now 57, was convicted in Shelby County Criminal Court of hiring Sidney Porterfield of Memphis to kill her husband, Ronald Owens, who was beaten to death with a tire iron at the couple’s Bartlett home in 1985.
Porterfield, now 67, was also sentenced to death, but he has a hearing set for Sept. 30 to determine if he is mentally fit under the law for execution. Today’s commutation has no direct bearing on his case.
Gaile and Ronald Owens's son, Stephen Owens, had joined with his mother's lawyers in an April press conference to publicly plead for his mother's life. He said he had been estranged from his mother for more than 20 years until he met with her in prison last summer.
"I am asking for your mercy. I am the face of the victim in this tragedy," Stephen Owens said April 20. "Last year I walked into the Tennessee Prison for Women and saw my mother for the first time in more than 20 years. I looked my mother in the eyes and told her I forgive her."
He could not be reached immediately today for reaction to the governor's action.
Bredesen cited two major considerations in his decision:
— “First, there’s at least a possibility that she was in an abusive marriage. While that in no way excuses arranging for murder, that possibility of abuse and the psychological conditions that can result from that abuse seems to me at least a factor affecting the severity of the punishment.
— “Second, Mrs. Owens was offered a plea bargain prior to her trial, of life imprisonment in exchange for her guilty plea. She accepted that plea bargain, the responsibility and the punishment, and the district attorney clearly considered that an appropriate resolution as well.”
However, the governor said, that plea bargain offer was contingent on Porterfield accepting it as well. When he refused, the offer was withdrawn by prosecutors and she went to trial with Porterfield as a co-defendant.
Bredesen also said that his office reviewed 33 similar Tennessee cases of women arranging and being charged with the murder of their husbands, some involving domestic abuse and some not. He said that only two of the cases resulted in the women being sentenced to death.
“One of them, (former governor) Lamar Alexander commuted,” the governor said. “The second one I’m commuting today.”
He said that of the 31 other cases, one of the women is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole while the other 30 are serving life sentences with parole possible.
“So nearly all the similar cases we looked at resulted in prison life in prison sentences,” he said.
Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons, who was not in office when the Owens case occurred, issued a statement saying, “The governor is given the power under our state constitution to commute sentences. Governor Bredesen has decided to use that power in the case of Gaile Owens. I respect the fact that it is his decision based upon his review of the circumstances.”
Although numerous groups, including the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church, had called on the governor to spare Owens’s life, Bredesen said he spoke only with one of her lawyers, George Barrett, and purposely avoided others who sought to meet with him about the case.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate,” he said. “This is not to be decided on who’s for it and who’s against it or on political pressure.”
Her attorneys filed the commutation request a year ago, citing among other issues sexual and physical abuse they said Owens suffered at the hands of her husband. Her attorneys cited a “battered spouse syndrome” defense that her trial attorneys did not pursue, but which has been used successfully in similar cases since then.
Bredesen said he met with Barrett in February. He said he turned his focus to the case in late June, after a busy winter and spring in which his work was centered on his legislative agenda. He said he made his decision now because there was no reason to force Owens — by all accounts, a model prisoner who helps other young women in prison — wait for an answer while her scheduled execution date neared.
Bredesen’s commutation order also grants Owens 1,000 days of sentence credits, which he said is less than she could have earned had the plea bargain she agreed to been accepted. With those credits alone, she would be eligible for parole consideration in spring 2012, but credits that she may begin earning starting today could push parole eligibility up to the end of 2011.
“What I’ve done here is go back and to the extent possible now, honor the concept of that plea bargain,” the governor said. “Had she received a life sentence, she would have been eligible to earn sentence credits in various ways. As a prisoner sentenced to death, this was, of course, not possible. To make some adjustment for that fact, and to provide some clarity, the commutation also grants her 1,000 days of sentence credit and the right to participate in the normal sentence credit process in the future.
“This credit is considerably less than she would likely have earned had the life sentence been in effect the last 25 years.”
In summation, Bredesen said, “Mrs. Owens is guilty of first-degree murder. She has accepted that responsibility. Nearly all the similar cases in Tennessee over the years have resulted in life sentences, and based on these considerations, I consider this a case in which the death penalty is inappropriate and a sentence of life in prison is appropriate.”