Another murderer escaped the needle last July when Governor Bredesen commuted Gaile Owens sentence to life in prison. Now she has had her first parole hearing:
parole hearing video here: http://www.tennessean.com/videonetwork/1147857727001/Gaile-Owens-tells-her-story-at-her-first-parole-hearing
Gaile Owens, once scheduled to be the first woman executed by the state of Tennessee since the days of Andrew Jackson and witchcraft, came a step closer to freedom today in her first hearing before the state parole board. At issue is whether the former death row inmate, convicted for arranging the murder of her husband Ron in 1985, would receive the votes she needs for parole.
Just over an hour after testimony began, 10 minutes before noon, board member Patsy Bruce looked directly at Owens and said, “I have decided I am going to vote yes.” Tears streamed down Owens' face, and most of the 70 gathered in the room broke into applause.
Owens must receive four "yes" votes before she is allowed to walk out of prison. The file will circulate through the other six parole-board members until four votes are tallied — yay or nay.
The emotional hearing was the latest wave in the groundswell calling for Owens' release, largely on grounds that juries never got to hear her claims of spousal sexual abuse. This factor, supporters say, might well have mitigated the severity of her sentence, even her conviction. (These issues are addressed in a multi-part 2010 Scene cover story, found here, here, and here.)
Ron Owens was found bludgeoned and bleeding by the couple's 11-year-old son Stephen in the family's Memphis home. He died a short time later from the wounds. A police investigation found that Gaile Owens had offered money to strangers if they would kill her husband. A man she approached, Sidney Porterfield, was ultimately convicted alongside Owens for the crime, though neither said money had exchanged hands. Nor did police find the murder weapon.
Gaile Owens arrived at the Tennessee Prison for Women on Feb. 21, 1986. Of the 25 years since that she has spent in prison, most were in some type of segregation, with 10 years in general population. In 2002, she was moved to the TPW’s Death Row, Unit 3.
In 2009, former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler came out of semi-retirement to write a searing article about the inequities of her case and sentence. That article put into high gear a movement that had already been started by her current attorneys, along with a group of friends that included McNeely Pigott & Fox partner Katy Varney, singer/songwriter Marshall Chapman and then Titans Coach Jeff Fisher.
That group grew — by thousands — into the Friends of Gaile movement, the force behind an online petition urging then Gov. Phil Bredesen to either pardon her, grant her clemency, or commute her sentence to life in prison. On July 14, 2010, he chose the third option. Two days later, she was moved back to general population.
Though Bredesen’s action spared her life, friends say it was forgiveness of a different kind that she craved more than anything else. On Aug. 23, 2009, guards escorted a visitor into Unit 3 to see Owens. It was Stephen Owens, then 37. The last time he'd seen his mother, he was 12 years old — and testifying at her trial for the prosecution.
That meeting stretched three hours, and when he walked out, neither mother nor son knew if they would see each other again. But Stephen says his heart and his faith led him to forgive his mother. When the Supreme Court of Tennessee declined to vacate her death sentence on April 19, 2010, he made a public appeal to Gov. Bredesen to spare his mother’s life.
Today, Stephen Owens sat with his wife at the hearing on the front row, facing the desk where Parole Board member Bruce was seated. He asked that his mother be paroled, and that “she be allowed to come home to be with her family,” which includes two grandsons she has never met.
Seven others spoke on her behalf, including Varney, Seigenthaler, and Patricia Shea, president of the YWCA of Middle Tennessee. But no one spoke more emotionally and convincingly on her behalf than Gaile Owens. We'll have more details in next week's Scene.