To supporters of Gaile Owens, Gov. Phil Bredesen did more last week than literally give a woman back her life. By commuting her death sentence after a quarter-century on death row, on July 14, he stood as a bulwark for equal application of the law, and against stale retribution for a crime whose truth the courts failed to seek at each step.
"Gov. Bredesen righted an enormous wrong with his decision today," said George Barrett, Owens' clemency attorney, in a statement issued just after the announcement. Clemency, Barrett said, "is the failsafe to address injustices that the court system cannot."
Owens' reprieve came as a surprise to allies and opponents alike. Owens, 57, was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of her husband, Ron Owens, the respected associate director of nursing at a Memphis hospital. On Feb. 17, 1985, she and her two young boys, Brian and Stephen, found Ron in a fetal position on the living-room carpet of their two-story dream home outside Memphis. His skull had been caved in with a blunt instrument, possibly a tire iron.
Detectives were later tipped off that Gaile had made several visits to a rough Memphis neighborhood, hoping to solicit someone to murder her husband. Among those she approached was a local mechanic, Sidney Porterfield, who after hours of interrogation confessed to the killing. (For details of the entire case, see "No Angel, No Devil" Part I, & Part II, April 22 and 29, 2010.) Because evidence against Porterfield was scant — aside from his confession — prosecutor Don Strother offered the two defendants a plea bargain: Life in prison, but only if both parties accepted the deal.
Thus began the chain of legal missteps that Bredesen said, in a released statement, had influenced his decision. Gaile, who never disputed her part in seeking Ron's death, immediately pleaded guilty. But co-defendant Porterfield rejected the offer. As a result, the agreement was yanked. Not only did Gaile then face the death penalty, but she also faced sharing lurid details about her marriage in front of her two sons. To spare them, she chose not to testify in her defense.
Gaile needn't have worried. Her lawyers never pursued her claims of sexual abuse at her spouse's hands — even though a court-appointed counselor before trial found signs of battered woman syndrome. And if she was concerned that her sons would learn their father was having an affair, her anxieties were unfounded. For whatever reason, the prosecutor allegedly allowed a detective to return evidence of the illicit liaisons to Ron's lover.
In his statement, Bredesen cited two main factors for commuting her sentence. The first was the possibility she had been abused, which was never raised at trial.
"While that in no way excuses arranging for murder," Bredesen stated, "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."
The second consideration was the plea bargain. When she accepted the initial offer, Bredesen said, the prosecutor seemed to think that was sufficient punishment at the time. Noting the "unusual" co-dependence of the plea arrangement, the governor essentially rewound the deal to the moment Gaile Owens agreed to Strother's terms.
"What I've done here," Bredesen said, "is to go back and to the extent possible now honor the concept of that plea bargain." Under the new terms, by which she can earn credit toward her sentence — a privilege not available under the death sentence — Gaile Owens could face a parole hearing as early as 2012.
Bredesen's announcement caused rejoicing among Gaile's many supporters, whose ranks included everyone from musicians and publicists to Titans Coach Jeff Fisher, who visited her in prison. But if anything, the governor's inter vention only pointed out how utterly the court system failed Gaile Owens' defense at every turn.
In appellate court after appellate court, up to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal limits placed on judicial review caused Gaile to face the same trial/post-conviction misconceptions over and over, like Bill Murray in Punxsutawny. Gaile was condemned for not testifying on her own behalf — but out-of-court psychological examinations based on her testimony were dismissed because appellate judges speculated she had reason to lie. Withheld evidence of Ron's infidelity was categorized as a motive to kill and tossed aside — disregarding the effect it might have had on sentencing. While the Tennessee Supreme Court refused to commute her sentence, its language all but begged Bredesen to act.
He did, to the great relief of someone who testified against Gaile Owens at her original trial — her son Stephen, then 12, who has since reconciled with his mother.
"As I stand here today, the healing power of God's forgiveness is evident," Stephen Owens said in a statement issued just after the announcement. "God is at work here."
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