Monday, June 14, 2010

CBS Sunday Morning Talks To Gaile Owens: Is Death Penalty Dying?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 14, 2010 at 12:39 PM

In case you missed it, CBS Sunday Morning aired footage yesterday of a prepared statement from Gaile Owens, who is scheduled for execution Sept. 28 for arranging the 1985 murder of her husband Ron Owens. (See the two-part Scene series for an in-depth examination of the crime and the sham of a trial — Part I, Part II.) CBS SM poses an interesting question: Is the death penalty itself in the throes of, well, death?

According to the report, fewer death sentences were handed down last year than at any time in the last 30 years. The stat is pretty startling — though perhaps it shouldn't be, considering how many wrongly accused death-row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The sweaty nightmare of the criminal justice system is the execution of a single innocent man — see David Grann's shattering New Yorker piece "Trial By Fire" for one such example.

Surprisingly, though, attitudes toward this practice — a seeming anachronism in the rest of the civilized world — haven't changed. Sixty-three percent of us still favor the death penalty, though for most it's a mere abstraction. (Attitudes might change if people actually witnessed one for themselves.) Aside from the argument that killing people who kill demonstrates that killing is not condoned, many still labor under the misconception that executing someone is actually cheaper than locking them up for life.

Even apart from the inevitable errors committed by a deeply flawed, often overextended court system, there's the inconsistency of how justice is meted out. Gaile Owens is a case in point. Mary Winkler, for example, blasted her preacher husband in the back with a shotgun in 2006 and sold a textbook story of abuse to a credulous media. Benefiting from today's enlightened attitudes toward spousal abuse, she's out of prison with custody of her children. Gaile Owens, by contrast, is a few months and one commutation away from the needle.

Sunday Morning took a drive-by look at the Owens case but observed, correctly, that it is "complicated." "Henry claims her client was a battered wife, that her husband was cheating on her ... and none of that mitigating evidence was presented at her trial," the report said.

Proving spousal sexual abuse to the criminal court standards of the time was all but impossible. The matter was never even raised at trial. Nor did jurors hear the claim that Owens' husband was cheating on her. Police found love notes in his desk — evidence that might have impacted her sentencing. Yet according to the detective in charge, the now-retired prosecutor, Don Strother, regarded the letters as irrelevant. They were given back to Ron Owens' lover and never seen by the jury.

Here's where the story does its opposing-quotes dance. Sunday Morning quotes Strother: "You know, I think (the claim of abuse is) something that's being created at this time," he said. "I have no sense that that's, in fact, reality." But as Gaile Owens' present attorney Kelley Henry points out, she told the state expert charged with evaluating her competence for trial about her troubled marriage, leading the expert to conclude she may have been a battered woman. Unfortunately, her attorney at the time never followed up to get the expert's opinion.

One expert quoted in the Sunday Morning story calls this country's death penalty a "work in progress." The question brought into such sharp relief by stories like Gaile Owens' — or by stories like Grann's about innocents put to death based on antiquated forensics — is whether we should be carrying out executions when we're still tinkering.

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