Once a wife and mother in a deceptively perfect home, Gaile Owens is now the first woman sentenced to die in Tennessee in nearly 200 years. 

No Angel, No Devil

As it turns out, the jury never heard her whole story — and her life hangs in the balance amid a web of lies, doubts, inconsistencies, unanswered questions and judicial flaws. The first in a two-part series.

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At school, Gaile was isolated by the unbending tenets of her religion. She was forbidden from participating in sports at recess. She was not allowed to wear a bathing suit and swim during the muggy Memphis summers, much less be anywhere near the sinewy, half-naked bodies of boys her age at swimming holes.

Her hair was to be kept long, and her body was to be hidden by full-length dresses with long sleeves. As a member of "God's peculiar people," Gaile was taught a fundamental lesson that would shape her life: A woman submits to her husband utterly.

Yet it was the church's strict, near-fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, and the brimstone-laden sermons Gaile sat through week after week, that made the behavior of the adults around her so perplexing. Her father, Jewell, was a mechanic who ran a service station. He worked hard and, according to Gaile's accounts of her childhood, drank hard, too. Her mother, Izora, ran a day care out of the house, watching after as many as 10 young children and babies at a time. She "prided herself on toilet training and potties were lined along the pantry hallway of their small home."

But running the day care made Izora neglect her own children. According to another assessment of Gaile conducted in the late 1990s, Wilson was 4 before he received any special care for his cerebral palsy. In the Kirksey household, though, neglect was often better than any attention. Physical violence was commonplace. Gaile says Jewell beat Izora and the children savagely. Gaile's youngest sister, Carolyn, has denied that Jewell was a "mean-spirited man," but acknowledged that her father was abusive when dealing out corporal punishment with his leather belt.

"At first I tried to stop [Jewell] from doing that," Izora told Eric Gentry, the first social worker to assess Gaile, "but then Gaile just had to — she had to just take her beating. She had to — I got out of the way and she just had to take those beatings."

At least one family friend tells the Scene he had absolutely no reservations about leaving his children with Jewell and Izora, whom he remembers as decent people. According to both assessments of Gaile's childhood home life, however, Izora hardly protected her children. Even when they spent the day helping their mother with her day care, she would tell their father they'd caused nothing but trouble. An exhausted and irritable Jewell would rise to the bait, belt in hand.

Gaile wasn't the oldest child, but because of Wilson's disability she took on the role. As a result, certain responsibilities fell to Gaile alone. Izora often forced her to wait up with her until Jewell came home late at night, usually drunk — reasoning that he would be less likely to beat her in front of Gaile. When Jewell would finally pass out, Gaile told Vogelsang and Gentry, Izora would occasionally steal cash out of the bag he brought home from the service station. Whenever Jewell discovered the bag was short, Izora had a scapegoat handy: her daughter.

A defense attorney might cite these anecdotes as a psychological basis for Gaile's later behavior. A prosecutor, on the other hand, might challenge them as suspiciously convenient, a compulsive thief's cover. The problem is, their only source is Gaile herself, whose credibility has been assailed by numerous former acquaintances, even members of her own family. That is not to say they aren't true — they may very well be. But they're impossible to corroborate, since Izora and Jewell Kirksey are both dead.

Despite the turbulence at home, Gaile received mostly As and Bs in her report cards, which described her conduct as "excellent." There were other bright spots in her life, too — chiefly the weekends she spent with her Uncle Nicky and Aunt Nanny and her two cousins. They took her to the Presbyterian church they attended, which only compounded Gaile's confusion. It was as though they worshipped a different God. Gaile was allowed to be a girl, to paint her nails — something her own church said would lead to expulsion.

Gaile told Vogelsang she remembered eyeing the clock and its sweeping hands every time her much-anticipated visits with her affluent relatives drew to a close. Her aunt and uncle always stopped for nail polish remover on the way home.

For a while, there was another person who made Gaile feel wanted and loved — her other uncle, Marshall Kirksey. He was one of the few men in the girl's life who doted on her. That's why it confused her so, she said, when he pinned her against a hay bale on his farm and forced his hands down her pants. Gaile was between 5 and 7 years old. She says she told Izora, but her mother did nothing. Izora would later deny this — not an uncommon discrepancy in terms of sexual abuse within the extended family. His ex-wife, though, would later tell Gentry she divorced Marshall because he had an affair with a minor who lived on the farm. She said she would not doubt Gaile's story.

Uncle Marshall's advances made Gaile feel sick inside, she told assessors, but as a child she couldn't comprehend how wrong they were. As she entered junior high, her uncle became more insistent, eventually attempting to penetrate her. After that, Gaile was able to stay away from the family gatherings at his farm altogether. Around the same time, her sterling marks at school began to be replaced by Cs, Ds and Fs. Her "excellent" conduct, too, was now deemed "satisfactory." In class Gaile was now the "solitary, standoffish, depressed, isolated" girl who allowed teachers to call her Marcia even though she always answered to Gaile.

Gaile's adolescence wasn't characterized by time with friends — she had very few — or by awkward dates with teenage boys. Jewell made sure of it. Many a father has joked about brandishing a shotgun in front of young men taking their daughters out on first dates. Jewell, openly aggressive, kept one by the front door in plain view.

By this time, the tenor of Calvary United Pentecostal was beginning to shift. There was a new preacher, the Rev. Jimmy Greer, who brought with him a sea change in the prevailing religious paradigm. The church split with the United Pentecostal Church and its rigid, legalistic tenets, becoming Abundant Life Church. Women were no longer banished from the congregation for wearing pants or having short hair.

Meanwhile, Gaile's little sister, Carolyn, began spending more and more time with the pastor's wife and his three daughters. Before long, Carolyn practically lived with the family. As teenagers, the sisters orbited different worlds. Carolyn was the pretty, popular one with the beautiful voice. Gaile, confused and socially stunted, bore the brunt of the hectic home/day care that Carolyn largely avoided. She strove to be the perfect daughter.

After high school, Gaile continued to live at home. Yet the rules constricting her social life didn't relax much with her coming of age. One event in which the two assessments begin to diverge is the incident that propelled her out of her parents' household. She spent a night — or a few, depending on the account — with an older female friend.

When she returned home, Jewell forced Gaile, now a grown woman, to strip down to her underwear so he could search her body for track marks. It didn't matter that Gaile had apparently never tried drugs or been in trouble with the law. Nor did it matter when Jewell found no evidence. Just for good measure, he whipped her with his belt. Carolyn corroborated the story, but added she didn't know whether or not Jewell whipped her. Whatever the case, Gaile moved into an apartment shortly afterward.

She got a job at LeBonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis. There, she met an Air Force veteran who said he'd served as a medic in Vietnam. "I stood up twice in Vietnam and was shot both times," Ron Owens told friends, pointing to scars on his elbows. Now a nurse at the hospital, he was charismatic and gregarious, always regaling friends and coworkers with a new joke or story. A golfer and basketball player, he was a stickler about his appearance, which was usually flawless, and he was a man who demanded order and neatness — not the kind of man Gaile thought would ever be interested in her.

But whether she knew it or not, Gaile was an attractive young woman with a petite figure. And Ron was interested. Gaile felt, if nothing else, grateful to be at his side.

Even so, when he proposed to Gaile at the Gridiron Restaurant, she told him she'd have to think about it. He approached her again the next day and told her he was serious. This time Gaile said yes. They were married in 1971, and the couple drove to Little Rock, Ark., for their honeymoon, to start their married life.


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