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.
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.
Tennessee's highest court has set an execution date for death row inmate Gaile K. Owens.
Owens, 57, is scheduled to be put to death on Sept. 28, according to an order issued Monday by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The last time a woman in Tennessee was executed was in 1820.
Owens was given the death penalty for soliciting the 1985 murder of her husband, Ronald Owens. The man she hired to kill her husband, Sidney Porterfield, also is on death row.
Her attorneys have argued that her sentence should be changed to life in prison. They said that she is the only inmate who was put on death row after agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and that no jury heard the details of abuse she claimed to have endured at the hands of her husband.
Agencies including the Nashville YWCA and the Tennessee Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence have tried to stop her execution. They have argued that her sentence was unfair, and that the impact of her abuse should be considered today, even if it wasn't when she was put on trial two decades ago.
"Today, there is more of an awareness about situations like hers," said Pamela Sessions, the Nashville YWCA's vice president of programming.
"If the YWCA and other agencies in town had the resources then that we have today, Gaile's situation might have turned out differently," Sessions said. "If a woman had a crisis line she could call or a shelter where she could have gone to be safe, she might look at things differently."
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 sentence.
"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.
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.
Today's Memphis Commercial Appeal has, "Gaile Owens supporters begin pitch to get her off Tennessee's death row," by Richard Locker.
Supporters of Gaile Owens of Bartlett, who faces execution Sept. 28 for the contract murder of her husband, focused their hopes on Gov. Phil Bredesen on Tuesday with a request to commute her death sentence to life in prison or release.
Her son spoke publicly for the first time in a news conference held by his mother's attorneys and supporters. "My statement today is a public plea to Governor 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.
The Tennessee Supreme Court on Monday denied Gaile Owens' request to vacate her Shelby County death sentence and modify it to life in prison, saying that it lacked the authority to do so. The court scheduled her execution for 10 p.m. Sept. 28.
But the justices' 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’ Son Pleas to Halt Mother’s Execution," is the WPLN-FM report by Daniel Potter.
So far Governor Phil Bredesen has commuted one death sentence, while allowing five others.
Statement from Lydia Lenker, press secretary to Gov. Bredesen:
“Governor Bredesen has received a clemency petition from Ms. Owens’ attorneys and is aware of those advocating on her behalf. As he does in each of these situations, the Governor is reviewing the document but hasn’t made a decision on the matter.”
More on the case and her clemency effort can be found at Friends of Gaile.
Last year, John Seigenthaler wrote about the Owens case in a series of articles in the Tennessean, noted here.