Gov. Phil Bredesen on Wednesday commuted the death sentence of a woman convicted of paying a man to kill her husband, meaning she could be released as soon as 2012.
Noon Report | 5 p.m. Report
Gaile Owens, 57, has been on death row since 1986. Bredesen said he decided to commute her sentence to life in prison because she had a plea deal with prosecutors but then was put on trial when her co-defendant refused to accept the bargain.
The state had set a Sept. 28 execution date. Under the terms of the arrangement Bredesen announced Wednesday, she'll be eligible for parole in 2012.
"Gaile is going to have an excellent chance the first time she goes up. She has had a pristine record at the prison," said Kelley Henry, Owens' attorney.
It has been nearly 200 years since Tennessee executed a woman. One other woman, Christa Gail Pike, is in prison with a death sentence but she is continuing to appeal.
"I'm very pleased with the governor's thoughtful decision in regards to Gaile Owens. He gave a great deal of deliberation to this based on the evidence and circumstances and, I believe, arrived at an appropriate decision," said Owens' attorney, George Barrett.
Her son said he's relieved the governor is giving him and his family a chance to have a real relationship with his mother.
"I just wanted to say that our family's legacy didn't end with the execution of my mother and me having to sit down with my kids and explain that, and now the governor done a great thing and given me the ability not to have that conversation," said Owens' son, Stephen. "I'm doing really good, but emotionally, today is a big emotional day for me."
Owens was convicted in Shelby County in 1986 of hiring Sidney Porterfield to kill her husband, Ron Owens. The victim was beaten to death with a tire iron at the suburban Memphis home the couple shared with their two sons. Witnesses testified that Owens had solicited several men over a period of a few months to kill her husband.
She initially told police that she had a bad marriage but that there was little physical violence. Shortly thereafter, she told attorneys a different story: claiming her husband had repeatedly raped and denigrated her. He cheated on her and threatened to take the children when she asked for a divorce, according to defense claims.
"Ms. Owens is guilty of first-degree murder; she accepted responsibility for that," Bredesen said. "Life in prison is appropriate."
Owens agreed to a conditional guilty plea before her trial, but that agreement was rescinded after her co-defendant refused to also plead guilty, Bredesen said.
"This case also raises unresolved allegations of domestic violence and emotional abuse that, while inclusive, raise the possibility that the defendant suffered from the form of post-traumatic stress disorder then known as battered woman syndrome," the commutation statement says.
Defense attorneys claimed Owens' death sentence was out of line with others convicted of similar crimes. Attorneys found records of at least 20 women convicted in Tennessee of first-degree murder for either killing their husbands, or hiring or conspiring with someone else to have their husbands killed. None of those women were sentenced to death. Many other women were convicted of lesser charges.
It is the second time Bredesen has commuted a death sentence. In 2007, Bredesen commuted the sentence of Michael Joe Boyd to life without the possibility of parole, citing "grossly inadequate legal representation."