The Immoral Majority: 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Fancy Themselves Ladykillers


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In a victory for Tennessee's trigger-happy pro-death-penalty crowd, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the appeal of Gaile K. Owens, Tennessee's first woman to be sentenced to death.

Whether or not you're in favor of the death penalty, the handling of Owens' defense was so botched as to be laughable, a point made painfully clear by Judge Gilbert Merritt, the dissenting (and only sane) voice in the ridiculous 2-1 decision. And with Tennessee's notoriously flawed death penalty system under scrutiny, it's even more shocking that Judges Danny Boggs and Eugene Siler could not only disregard the facts of the case, but the laws of the nation and the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court to boot.

No one, including Owens herself, denies that she hired someone to kill her husband. But a few things are clear: She received jaw-droppingly ineffective assistance of counsel, the state withheld crucial exculpatory evidence, and the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

Those three factors formed the basis of her appeal, and Merritt has no patience for the absurdity of his colleagues' position.

Among the glaring misdeeds cited by Merritt:

• "Defense counsel's time sheets and his certified representation to the state court showed that counsel abandoned the investigation of the defense -- spending a total of only two hours of investigation in preparation for the mitigation or sentencing phase of Mrs. Owens' case."
(Boggs and Siler have the gall to argue that the defense counsel lied, and in fact spent long hours investigating for the sentencing hearing, but falsified his time sheets to say he spent less time, so he could get paid less and also look incompetent. That makes a whole lot of sense.)
• "The prosecution offered Owens life imprisonment (conditioned on the guilty plea of her confederate) because the killing under these mitigating circumstances -- circumstances the jury never heard about at all -- made her less culpable. The jury never heard the evidence in the hands of the prosecution that made her less culpable because the prosecution consciously and deliberately covered it up. And now my colleagues say 'fine, no problem, she should have taken the stand.' "

• "To the obvious prosecutorial falsehoods in this case, the majority opinion can only lamely answer that Mrs. Owens already knew that her husband, Ron Owens, was having affairs so that any documents and letters would not have been favorable or prejudicial because she herself could have testified to those facts herself. ...The majority's proposed rule is nonsense. ...This argument is directly contrary to the Supreme Court's holding in [Brady v. Maryland]."

No one is arguing that Owens should be set free to walk the streets. But her defense was handled so incompetently, and she clearly was the victim of an abusive spouse, a case that was never made. If those facts had been presented, surely she wouldn't have received the death penalty.

Among the factors cited in Merritt's dissenting opinion:

• Ron Owens inserted large objects into Ms. Owens vagina and rectum, and inserted a wine bottle into her vagina and manipulated it so hard that it broke inside her.

• The night before the birth of Ms. Owens second son, Ron Owens forced her to engage in such brutal intercourse that her placenta partially detached, leading to an emergency C-section to save both mother and son.

• Ron Owens lied to Ms. Owens and others about his background, claiming he served as a medic in Vietnam, and that he was shot twice and contracted malaria while he was there.

Merritt makes no effort to hide his disgust, and understandably so. A few more choice words for his indefensible colleagues:
• "The majority opinion slants and misconceives relevant facts and law in this case on each of the three major issues in order to uphold the death penalty. I will try to straighten out the case for the reader by introducing the actual facts and the correct legal principles to be applied. This is not a close case."

• "The majority offers a hopeless, out-of-the question argument on this subject of acceptance of responsibility. ...My colleagues' view is that Mrs. Owens could only make her evidence of remorse and acceptance of responsibility admissible by following the Mosaic law of lex talionis -- 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' Surely the law of admissibility of mitigating evidence in our time under Eddings does not turn on accepting the theory of Mosaic law as found in the Old Testament."

• "The law is not unclear or up-in-the-air on this subject. ...As with the Brady violation and the ineffective assistance of counsel, the majority has again stood truth on its head with its argument that Owens' offer to plead and the State's offer of life does not fall within the meaning of 'any relevant mitigating evidence.' "

Whether or not you believe in an eye for an eye, in this particular case it is strikingly clear that the death penalty is an unjustifiable sentence.


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