Spurred by the Tennessee Supreme Court order issued Monday afternoon to set a date for Gaile Owens’ death, her 37-year-old son, Stephen Owens, of Franklin, spoke to the media for the first time ever at a press conference today at the office of George Barrett, the attorney seeking commutation of her death sentence from Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Owens declined to take any questions and read from a brief statement before promptly exiting the room. Until 2009, Owens had not seen his mother since he took the witness stand in 1986, testifying for the prosecution.
His mother was on trial for ordering the murder of his father, Ron Owens, whom she claimed had sexually abused her throughout their 13-year marriage. It was also later discovered that he was having an affair with a subordinate at the hospital he worked for in Memphis.
After a short deliberation — having heard nothing of the affair or the alleged abuse — the jury sentenced Owens to death. In fact, due to inadequate representation and a law that limits federal courts’ ability to consider all the evidence in her case, no court has ever heard the entire story.
To be sure, it was a long, difficult road that must have brought Owens to Barretts office this morning.
“Last year, I walked into the Tennessee Prison for Women and saw my mother for the first time in more than 20 years. I looked my mother in the eyes and told her I forgive her,” Owens said, looking up occasionally from his typed statement. It was uncanny how strong a resemblance he bore to old microfilm images of his father.
“The harsh reality is that both of my parents have been absent from my life," he continued. "Sparing my mother’s life can change that reality. Please do not execute my mother and rob me of this opportunity.
“Please do not leave me with the responsibility of looking my sons in the eyes and explaining that their grandmother was executed. Please do not allow a death sentence to be the legacy of my family.”
With Owens' appeals now exhausted, Bredesen can choose to commute her sentence to time served or life imprisonment. Should he decline, Owens would be the first woman executed in this state in nearly two centuries. She is also the only death row inmate to be sentenced to death after first accepting a guilty plea agreement.
According to Barrett, a commutation could fit into the framework of precedent set by Bredesen, when he commuted the sentence of Michael Joe Boyd, who was convicted of first-degree murder in a Shelby County Court, in 2007. His sentence was commuted for reasons nearly identical to those found in Owens’ case: inadequate representation and procedural limitations that prevented any court from taking a hard look at his case.