When word came down April 19, 2010, that the Supreme Court of Tennessee had declined to vacate, modify or commute Gaile Owens' death sentence — leaving the 57-year-old mother, grandmother and Death Row inmate to be executed on Sept. 28, 2010 — the news ripped through the hearts of her ever-widening pool of supporters.
It started with a phone call at 2:15 p.m. to her post-conviction attorney Kelley Henry of the Federal Public Defender's Office, then rippled out to clemency attorney George Barrett and longtime friends and visitors Pat and Gene Williams and singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman. Within minutes, it had traveled to the administration, inmates and volunteers at the Tennessee Prison for Women; high-profile advocates such as former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler; and all the way to the hundreds of Friends of Gaile Owens — most of whom have never met her, but were galvanized by the many injustices that led to her death sentence.
Perhaps no one was hurt more by the ruling, though, than the man whom Henry texted at 2:17 p.m., the man who arguably had been hurt most by the crime she was convicted of setting in motion — her 37-year-old son, Stephen Owens.
The day after the announcement, this intensely private man, with a grace, dignity, faith and face that bear remarkable resemblance to his mother, sat before the media in George Barrett's office and read a personal entreaty to Gov. Phil Bredesen.
"My statement is a public plea to Gov. Bredesen to spare my mother's life," Stephen read. "Please do not leave me with the responsibility of looking into my son's eyes and explaining that their grandmother was executed. Please do not allow a death penalty to be the legacy of my family. I am asking for your mercy. I am the face of the victim in this tragedy.
"Gaile Owens is my mother. I am her son. Please do not take this from me. There is no justice in taking her life. There is no justice in denying the healing power of forgiveness."
It was 11-year-old Stephen who discovered his dying father, Ron Owens, on the floor of their Bartlett, Tenn., home on Feb. 17, 1985. It was Stephen who learned just five days later that his mother had been arrested for the crime. It was Stephen who, just days after his 12th birthday, had to testify for the prosecution at his mother's trial; and Stephen who, along with his younger brother Brian, was essentially orphaned by the deed, then raised by Gaile's estranged sister Carolyn Hensley.
Miraculously, then, it was Stephen who walked into the visiting room in Unit 3 of the Tennessee Prison for Women on Aug. 23, 2009, expressing forgiveness to the mother he hadn't seen in almost 25 years — the grandmother of his two young sons.
It was an arduous journey to that room, one that he has described with searing honesty on his blog He Will Deliver. He started the blog on Feb. 9, 2009, nearly 24 years to the day after his father's murder. It led with the statement, "I give in. This blog is my passive response to God's persistent voice."
The next entry didn't come until July 21. "The letter to my mother, Gaile Owens, will be mailed tomorrow requesting a visit on August 23, 2009," Stephen wrote. "The last time I saw my mother was in 1986 and I was sitting on the witness stand testifying against her. She was convicted of accessory before the fact in the murder of my father and sentenced to death."
He told his wife more than once that someday he would probably want to see his mother again. For many years, though, he could not find his way to that place.
He believes a sign came in the form of Steve Wilson, a colleague at the school where he teaches and coaches boys' basketball, just as his father Ron had. Wilson invited Owens to speak to his ninth-grade class, not knowing his story. As it turned out, he knew Gaile Owens: They met through a Bible study ministry Wilson began at the prison 10 years ago that August. He was shocked to connect the two, and volunteered to go along if Stephen wanted to see Gaile.
"I believe God placed Steve Wilson on my path," Stephen wrote. "I simply do not believe in coincidence. I believe in God."
Stephen tells how he felt walking into his home on the night of the murder, seeing his bloodied father taking his last breaths. He confesses how much he has missed him over the years — missing him at school and church and in the stands at basketball games, feeling the ache of his absence ever more keenly at special events such as graduation, his wedding and the birth of his own boys. It is easy to understand why he would choose not to see the woman who took that from him and altered their lives forever. And yet he seeks prayers for his mother, reminded that "we are all sinners, and by the Grace of God, none of us get what we deserve."
Two days before the visit, he wondered how his mother felt as the day approached. "Is she nervous or anxious?" he wrote. "Does she want to see me?"
In her single room in Unit 3 of the Tennessee Prison for Women, Gaile Owens remembers, she was just as apprehensive. "I found out in February that he was making the application to come visit me," she says through attorney Henry. It should be noted that Gaile has not spoken to the media in all her years of incarceration; she agreed to relay responses to the Scene's questions via Henry.
"The night before, I couldn't sleep," she recalls. "I always had this fear, a recurring nightmare, that what if I was out and in a public place where there were a lot of people and Stephen was there, but I didn't recognize him? That we'd both be somewhere and miss the opportunity because it had been so long, so many years, that we didn't recognize each other?"
But on that day, nearly 24 years since she last saw her son in a courtroom in Shelby County, Gaile was at the end of the long hall leading from the entrance of Unit 3 to the inmate's rooms in the rear. She was being taken from her room to one of the private visiting rooms, and she looked down the hall to the vestibule between the outer and inner doors.
"The minute I saw him, even from that far away, I knew and I pointed at him," Gaile remembers. "I had been talking to myself the night before, telling myself not to cry. Then I thought to myself, 'Would he think it was weird if I didn't cry?' I cried so much that my mascara was all over my face. I looked like a clown!"
"I stood in front of my mother for the first time in 24 years," Stephen wrote on Aug. 23, just hours after seeing Gaile. "I hugged my mother for the first time in 24 years. She sobbed. She said 'I'm sorry son. I'm so sorry son.' It was a very raw apology filled with raw emotion. She hugged my wife and we all sat down at the table. The conversation came easily. We talked and we talked. There were moments of laughter. ...
"Before I knew it 3 hours had passed and the guard stood by and gave us the 5 minute warning. My mother looked at me and said 'I'm sorry. I know I can't change anything now but I just need to ask for your forgiveness.' That was it. That was what God sent me here this day to do. I looked my mother in the eyes and told her that I forgive her."
Gaile remembers it just the same. "There was so much to say and so little time," she says. "I didn't know if I would ever see him again. There are no guarantees in life. But I had what I wanted and prayed for for so long. I saw him. I touched him. I hugged him. I had his forgiveness."
That stands in stark contrast to the day Marcia Gaile Owens arrived at the Tennessee Prison for Women. It was Feb. 21, 1986, and an ugly circus atmosphere prevailed. The media devoured the crime and trial, and all eyes were on the shy, traumatized woman at its center.
"I think they had an idea of what I would be like, that I would be a monster, filled with hate," Gaile says. "That I would cause trouble and be a problem. I was never that. I never caused trouble."
Gaile came to the prison directly from the Shelby County Jail, trading in its uniform for TWP-issued attire. She brought with her photos of her two boys — photos she still has in her room, her boys frozen in time.
She was placed in mandatory segregation. Until December of her first year there, she was in her room 23 hours a day. She was permitted out — shackled — for one hour a day for "recreation," shower and telephone.
In 1987, she was given a job in a property cage installed inside the property room. From inside the cage, Gaile did property paperwork while two general population inmates in the room put up inventory. The job brought Gaile into contact with people other than guards for the first time in nearly a year.
In 1992, Gaile received a policy exemption because the prison did not have a housing area equivalent to the male death row. Until Christa Pike's arrival in March 1996, Gaile was the only female inmate sentenced to death. The policy exemption allowed Gaile to enter non-segregated housing, placing her in general population. It was here that Gaile came into her own — as a friend, employee, teacher, role model, mentor, leader and volunteer.
With her change in residence, Gaile also got a new job doing clerical work for a company called CET (now TriCor), which had a contract with the prison for inmate labor. "It was the first time I had seen a fax machine," she remembers. She also entered the computer age after two sessions with a tutor. "I found out that you can learn pretty much everything you need to know from the Help button on the toolbar," she says.
Two years later, she was one of 13 inmates chosen to work for a TennCare inmate job program created by then-Gov. Ned McWherter. "I had not answered a telephone in eight years," she recalls. "It just didn't occur to me until I got that job, you become so accustomed to the way things are. It felt good to learn something new. That has always been important to me. If I'm not learning new things, then I'm not growing."
In 1994, Gaile also got her first roommate, whose name she declines to share. "I didn't think it would work out," she remembers. "She was a whiny country girl. But we ended up rooming together for nine years and became best of friends. We actually had a lot in common — we were about the same age, she had three boys, I had two. She worked in the TennCare program, though we had an agreement not to bring the job 'home' with us."
They also had another thing in common — both were in jail for killing their husbands. Her roommate, however, did not receive the death penalty. She is coming up for parole.
In her 10 years in the general population, Gaile spent eight years on the Inmate Council, elected by other inmates. At monthly meetings with prison staff, she served as the representative and voice of her peers. She also served on the Grievance Board for seven years, nominated by inmates and voted upon by staff.
"[My roommate] would fuss at me about how much time I took listening to the inmates, how much energy it took, but I always felt like if people just had someone to listen to them, it could defuse a situation, no matter how tense it is." She adds, with no apparent irony, "People just need to feel like someone is hearing them."
Those who know her in prison say she has changed greatly, for the better. When Amachi — a mentoring program that matches children of inmates with adult members of secular and faith-based organizations — came to TWP to introduce their program, it was Gaile who volunteered to work with them and help the inmates get signed up. It was Gaile who began a pay-it-forward effort using a prison essential — shower shoes. She noticed that many new inmates didn't have the money to buy them, so she began buying a pair a week and giving them to someone new, asking only that they would do the same once they began to earn money.
Accepting an invitation from the warden in 1993, Marshall Chapman came to the prison to play a concert for inmates. Before she went on, three inmates delivered a fruit tray — Barbara Tole, Deborah Knapp and Gaile. Not long afterward, Chapman wrote to Gaile and asked if they could be pen pals.
"It was actually selfish on my part," Chapman says. "I was going through some personal things then and she really helped me get my priorities in order. Our letters are stories, mundane things we write to each other. I have such an appreciation for her keen sense of humor and irony."
Tole committed suicide in her cell two years later. Knapp is now out of jail and Facebook friends with Chapman. Only Gaile remains behind bars.
Pat Williams met Gaile in 1998 with a group called Master Life Bible Study that came to the prison on Sunday nights. "What I immediately noticed was how the other, younger inmates responded to her, how much they wanted her approval when they said something," Williams says. "They held her in such high regard. As I came to know her better, I saw how she counseled them, told them to do the right thing. She has such a love for the young girls coming in. I get frustrated with them when they act out, but she reaches out to them."
Gaile has taken on the mentoring role gladly. "Since I've been here the inmate population has gotten much younger," she says. "I felt like I could be an example to the younger girls. When they are young and new, they're afraid. Who wouldn't be? I try to help them find their way, to remind them that if they break the rules, they will only hurt themselves.
"Prison is like high school — once you get labeled a certain way that reputation is always with you. So many of them are like wounded little birds, they just need love so badly."
In 2002, when the policy exemption that allowed her to enter the general population expired, Gaile was transferred to the Special Management Unit. Her job since then has been as the clerk for the Unit Supervisor. She is proud that in all of her time at TWP, she has only missed two days of work — when she was taken to Shelby County in 1997 for her post-conviction relief trial.
That was the only time Gaile has been out of the prison in 24 years. It has allowed a lot of time for reflection tempered by reality.
"I am so ashamed of what I did. I wish I could go back and change it, but I can't," she says. "I've accepted responsibility for putting the wheels in motion that led to Ron's death. I pled guilty to the crime so my family would not have to go through anymore than they were already suffering. I did not want to say in court what had happened to me. Just give me the life sentence and leave my kids alone.
"The issues between Ron and I were between Ron and I. He isn't here to defend himself, so I am not going to say anything about him. Did I deserve to be treated the way Ron treated me? No. But I could have found another way. I could have done something differently.
"I did not want to put them through that, so I pled guilty in exchange for a life sentence. I accepted that. I've chosen not to be angry about the trial, about how that turned out, getting death when I had accepted life in prison. It takes a lot of energy to be angry. You have to let go."
On the other side of the prison walls, Stephen Owens seems to have arrived at that same place.
"My mother and I covered a lot of topics in our visit but we did not discuss my father's death," he wrote on his blog after their first visit. "We talked about his life, his sense of humor, and funny stories from my childhood but we did not talk about his death. We did not talk about her decisions that resulted in his death ... forgiveness has to be unconditional. I had to be able to look into the eyes of a woman who is suffering her consequences and tell her that in my heart, the past is no more."
Gaile's work, her relationships with the staff and other inmates, and visits and letters from friends have motivated her to remain productive and positive through nearly 25 years of incarceration.
"I didn't set out to be a cause or whatever I am now," she says. "I have made some terrible mistakes, but inside I have always been this person. I don't want to be known only for my sentence. I believe I can and am supposed to help other women who may be in the situation I was in to make better choices, and not do what I did."
What has kept hope alive in Gaile Owens are the thoughts of her children that awaken her every morning and go to sleep with her every night.
"My children are what have kept me going in here, even when I couldn't see them," she says. "I hope that my sentence is commuted and that ultimately I will be released. But no matter what happens, Stephen's forgiveness is everything to me. That is something I have always prayed for. Since he came to see me the first time, and told me he forgives me, I have a peace I didn't have before.
"I have told my attorneys that if my sentence is not commuted, if the courts say no, and the governor says no, and the execution date is set, I don't want it to drag on. I don't want to put my family and friends through that. I have peace."
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