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An emotional hearing puts Gaile Owens on a possible path to freedom

Life After Death Row

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On Sept. 7, a cloudy, unseasonably cool Wednesday morning, Patsy Bruce and Gaile Owens sat across a table from one another. In an alternate universe, the two petite, gray-haired women might have been friends meeting for coffee and conversation.

But here, in what is normally the visiting room at the Tennessee Prison for Women, the former held in her hands the life of the latter.

Patsy Bruce is a Nashville native and veteran songwriter. (She co-wrote the outlaw anthem "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.") But she also serves as one of seven members of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. Last week, she was present to cast the first of four crucial votes that will determine the fate of Inmate No. 109737, sentenced to death on Feb. 22, 1986, for her part in the 1985 murder of her husband.

Inmate No. 109737 is Gaile Owens.

The emotional hearing was the latest dramatic turn in a long saga of violent death, desperation and unexpected hope. Twenty-six years ago, the couple's 11-year-old son Stephen found his father Ron Owens bludgeoned and bleeding in the family's Memphis home. He died a short time later. 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. (These issues were examined at length last year in a multi-part Scene cover story, "No Angel, No Devil," April 22 & 29, 2010.) In order to spare her two sons, she refused to testify about the sexual and emotional abuse she told a psychiatric evaluator she suffered at his hands, or to talk to the media. Not even Oprah Winfrey could persuade her to present her story.

Owens thus spent much of the subsequent quarter-century on Tennessee's death row. Her case did not become public until late 2009, when John Seigenthaler wrote a blistering Tennessean story about the disparity between her sentence and those of other women who had been convicted of murdering their husbands.

The story propelled a desperate effort to spare her life. On July 14, 2010 — only two months before her scheduled execution — then-Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted her sentence to life. Two days later, she left Unit 3, Death Row, and returned to the prison's general population. The 1,000 days of sentence credit he granted her led to her first opportunity for freedom — and to this room.

Owens' chair was the only one pulled up to Bruce's table. But she was by no means alone. Behind her, filling eight rows of eight chairs, was a diverse group of supporters, most of whom she had never met. On the front row, eight people sat stock-still in the prison's hard plastic chairs, ready to speak on her behalf.

Bruce opened Owens' file, several inches thick. At 10:55 a.m., she officially addressed the room.

"It is Sept. 7, 2011. I am Patsy Bruce. I am a member of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. I am the only one here. I say to you, Ms. Owens, you should not be encouraged or discouraged by my vote. Your file will be circulated around the state to the other parole board members until there are four votes either way. It can take up to four weeks. You will know at the end of this hearing how I will vote."

Only 30 minutes before, the 70 people present had been talking so loudly that a correctional officer a room away warned them to hold it down. Now all was silence. They focused on Owens' back, as if collective concentration would affect the outcome.

After numerous questions about her education, employment history and previous offenses, Bruce looked solemnly at Owens. "This is your chance to tell me about you, your crime and your remorse for your crime," she said. Looking directly into Bruce's eyes, Owens spoke.

"I admit I am responsible for the death of my husband," Owens said, her voice choked with emotion, tears streaming down her face. "I am responsible for putting the wheels in motion that led to his death. In December 1984, I had reached the breaking point. I realize now it was abuse, but I didn't have the knowledge to process it then. I didn't feel I could leave him because of my sons. As crazy as it sounds, at a point of desperation, I drove the streets of Memphis looking for someone to hurt my husband. On the night of Feb. 17, 1985, my sons and I came home to find him dead in our house.

"Words cannot express my remorse and regret for my responsibility for Ron's death. I have spent 26 years regretting Ron's death. I would do anything if I could change what happened then, but I cannot."

After going through more details of the crime, Bruce said, "First speaker, introduce yourself."

Stephen Owens stood and addressed Bruce. He went almost 25 years without seeing his mother, until they reconciled in 2009. Before then, he last saw her when he testified at age 12 at her trial — for the prosecution. Today, at age 39, he was present to testify on her behalf.

"I want my mother to come home to her family," Stephen said. "I have two young sons who deserve the opportunity to meet their grandmother. As my boys grow older, my wife and I will explain my painful past to my sons. We will also tell them of God's healing and forgiveness. We will tell them about all the people who filled this room today and surrounded us with love and support. We will tell our boys of the people who came into my life and my mother's life through the years that ultimately became a part of this story about redemption. I cannot change my past, but please give me and my family an opportunity for a new hope in the future by setting my mother free."

For the next 20 minutes, many of those people spoke. Prison visitor Pat Williams — who with her husband Gene has offered a room in their home to Owens upon her release — spoke of her selflessness towards other inmates. Prison volunteer Mary Dalton called Owens "a trophy of God's grace." Volunteer prison chaplain Linda Knott testified of Owens' value to the prison spiritual group Master Life. Friend Katy Varney said, "I don't know any mother who was willing to face execution rather than bring additional shame and sorrow to her children by testifying what their father did."

Linda Leathers, executive director of The Next Door halfway house, has already recruited Owens as a volunteer and adviser. So has the YWCA's Patricia Shea, who pointed out that if the services the YW provides to victims of domestic violence had been available to Gaile in Memphis 26 years ago, "none of us would be here today." John Seigenthaler, meanwhile, compared Owens' case to Mary Winkler — who shot her husband in the back, served two months for his murder and regained custody of her children.

Bruce invited Owens to tell her why she should be paroled. Holding her hands in front of her, palms up, she again expressed her "unbearable remorse," then ended by asking Bruce for "the opportunity to give me my tomorrow outside these prison walls, with my son, my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren." When she finished, she took her glasses off, wiped her eyes, and turned to smile slightly at her son. He smiled back.

As Bruce consulted her notes, Owens sat motionless, her head bowed, her ankles crossed under her chair. The entire room held its breath as Bruce began to speak.

"I have decided I am going to vote yes," Patsy Bruce said. Gaile Owens burst into tears. Lisa Owens squeezed her husband Stephen's hand.

Owens was allowed time to embrace some of those in the room — including singer Marshall Chapman and former Titans Coach Jeff Fisher — before a brief meeting with Stephen and Lisa. Shortly thereafter, Gaile Owens was escorted back to her unit.

Asked a week earlier what had changed since her death sentence was lifted, Owens had two responses. At first she said, "You don't know what it means to me that when my son comes to visit, he does not have to walk to Unit 3, to Death Row." She immediately expanded upon that thought.

"The yard here is so much bigger than the area in Unit 3," she said. "Walking across the yard, I feel so free. All the time I was in prison, I never allowed myself to look beyond the fence. This past year, I've been looking beyond the fence, and thinking of what life might be like on the other side of this fence."

In less than a month, Gaile Owens will either find out — or face another year behind bars wondering.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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