With the state of Tennessee trying to set a date for her execution by lethal injection, convicted murderer Gaile Owens is pointing to the controversial case of fellow husband-killer Mary Winkler as one reason her sentence should be commuted to life in prison.
Owens, 57, was convicted in Shelby County in 1986 of being an accessory before the fact in the 1985 murder of her husband, Ronald Owens. Last week, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper asked the state's Supreme Court to set a date of execution for Owens, arguing that she had exhausted her appeals.
In response, Assistant Federal Public Defenders Gretchen Swift and Kelley Henry today filed a motion asking the high court to give them until Feb. 5 to make their case on behalf of Owens. They argue that Owens is "the only Tennessee death row inmate who was offered a plea agreement to serve life in prison prior to trial (approved by the victim's father) and who accepted that plea offer because of her extraordinary remorse, only to be forced to trial based on circumstances out of her control."
Prosecutors in 1986 did offer both Owens and the man she hired to carry out the murder, Sidney Porterfield, life sentences in return for guilty pleas, contingent on both of them accepting the deal. Owens accepted, but Porterfield refused, and so the offer was withdrawn and the pair was tried jointly for first-degree murder.
Swift and Henry contend that "no court has fairly considered evidence that Ms. Owens was a battered woman — the victim of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse." They call the imposition of the death penalty on her "truly disproportionate" in comparison to the fate of Winkler, the Selmer, Tenn. woman who was charged with first-degree murder in the death of her preacher husband, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and released from prison after serving a seven-month sentence.
"Ms. Owens, a battered woman who accepted responsibility and a life sentence for her role in her husband's murder, is certainly not the first woman that Tennessee should execute after 180 years — especially when other similarly situated women, like Mary Winkler, have served less than one year in jail for similar crimes," the attorneys assert.
A year ago, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of appeals rejected Owens' arguments that she had received ineffective assistance of counsel when trial counsel failed to adequately investigate her background and failed to overcome the state’s hearsay objection to one of her penalty-phase witnesses. That ruling also turned aside her claims that prosecutors violated her rights by failing to turn over letters between her late husband and his lover and that the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering, as mitigating evidence, testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in return for receiving a life sentence.
Nashville-based Judge Gil Merritt dissented from that ruling, arguing that the court's majority opinion misconstrued the facts of the case.
In addition to revealing elements of Owens' defense strategy, her filing also corrects the historical record on the execution of women in Tennessee. Although it has been widely reported that Owens would be the first woman put to death by the state, her lawyers say in a footnote that four women were hanged in Tennessee between 1807 and 1820. Owens would be the first woman executed in the state for some 190 years.