UPDATE: KAY WEST'S ACCOUNT OF THE DAY'S EVENTS:
When Linda Oakley arrived at the Tennessee State Prison for Women, the first inmate she met during intake was Gaile Owens, who was then on death row for hiring someone to murder her husband. Owens gave Oakley her TDOC clothing, and they did not see one another again until Owens was transferred to General Population in 1992, and Oakley and she became roommates. At the time, Owens didn’t think the arrangement would work out. “I thought she was a whiny country girl,” Owens recalled with a laugh in an interview in March, 2010. But as it turned out, “We had a lot in common. We were about the same age, she had three boys, I had two.” And Oakley was also imprisoned for killing her husband. The two became best of friends, living and working together until Owens was transferred back to a single room on death row in Unit 3 in 2002.
Though they were not allowed to see one another, they wrote letters and maintained their friendship. When then-Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted Owens’ sentence to life on July 14th, 2010, she returned to General Population two days later, and reunited with her old roommate and dear friend. No one was happier for Oakley when she was granted parole on Oct. 21, 2010, than Gaile Owens. Though Oakley was not permitted to visit the prison, they stayed in touch through letters and phone calls, praying for the day that Owens might be paroled as well.
Their prayers were answered on Sept. 28, a year to the day after Owens’ original execution date, when her parole was approved.
Today, on a beautiful, clear-blue-sky fall morning, Oakley stood with Gaile’s family and friends outside TPW, trembling with emotion and anticipation. “Gaile called me last night, and said ‘This is my last phone call to you from prison!’ ”
Thirty minutes later, the crowd pressed close to the area outside the barbed-wire topped fence that imprisoned Owens and Oakley for 26 and 21 years respectively. As Gaile Owens rolled a yellow cart carrying her belongings out of the gate, she sped up her steps and rushed to embrace her son Stephen. Then she and her best friend Linda Oakley wrapped their arms around one another, tears of gratitude running down their faces. After hugging her daughter-in-law Lisa Owens and several other supporters, Gaile Owens and Linda Oakley got into the backseat of a waiting car. In the front were longtime prison volunteers and friends, Patricia and Eugene Williams, with whom Owens will live as she acclimates to life outside prison, with help from someone who walked the path before her. As Stephen Owens stepped in front of the assembled media to deliver his statement, Gaile Owens drove off from the Tennessee State Prison for Women, in a car with a license plate that read “Choose Life.”
More photos after the jump....