Tennessee Supreme Court Sets Execution Date for Gaile Owens



From Scene reporter Brantley Hargrove:

  • Photo: Friends of Gaile
It comes as no great surprise that the Tennessee Supreme Court set an execution date for Gaile Owens Monday afternoon — she's scheduled to be killed on Sept. 28. A mother of two from a suburb of Memphis, Owens was convicted of having her husband murdered in 1985. Check out the dead-tree edition of the Scene this week for the first installment in a two-part series examining Owens' life, her marriage, the death of her husband and the courtroom bungling that ensured no jury would ever hear the whole story, and that no court would ever take a hard look at what really happened.

Defense attorneys for Owens — Kelley Henry and Gretchen Swift of the Federal Public Defender's Office — petitioned Tennessee's high court to commute her sentence on four grounds:

Owens is the only prisoner in Tennessee to have received a death sentence after first agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. After Sidney Porterfield, the Memphis man who was convicted of killing her husband, declined to accept the plea agreement, the prosecutor withdrew the offer.

Secondly, Owens' attorneys have argued that her trial and post-conviction counsel failed to present evidence that she had been abused by her husband, Ron Owens. Indeed, the jury never heard a word about the alleged abuse. After being refused funding to hire an expert, her attorneys dropped the battered wife defense completely. Nor was the jury ever told Ron Owens was having an affair at the time — primarily because the prosecution failed to turn love letters between Ron Owens and his lover over to the defense. At post-conviction in 1997, the defense witness, a social worker, was tasked with providing an assessment of Owens' life, as well as the abuse she said she suffered at the hands of her husband. The social worker's credentials, however, were regarded suspiciously at the outset. An utter novice at testifying on the stand, the social worker's testimony was incoherent and scattershot. Other courts would later refuse to consider it altogether.

Third, Owens' attorneys argued that the courts have failed to consider the effect the love letters between her husband and his lover might have had on the jury had they been produced by the prosecution. In fact, it takes only one juror to swing the sentence from death to life. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has acknowledged there's a "longstanding, commonsense belief in our culture that people who kill their spouses because of infidelity are not as morally culpable as other murderers." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of petitioners who have been deprived of favorable evidence by the prosecution — most notably in the case of Gary Cone, the Vietnam vet who claimed he was under the influence of amphetamine psychosis when he murdered a couple in Memphis. It was later found that the prosecution — in fact the same prosecutor who tried Owens' case — withheld evidence that indicated he may have been strung out at the time.

Lastly, her attorneys argued her sentence is wildly disproportionate when compared to similar cases. Take Mary Winkler, for example. She got off on voluntary manslaughter after blasting her husband in the back with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Despite all this, the Tennessee Supreme Court doesn't believe there's enough evidence to warrant a commutation. Go figure. Now the ball is in Gov. Phil Bredesen's court. The Tennessee Supreme Court's decision makes that quite clear. He can choose to grant clemency.

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