Anyone who looked at Gaile Owens, 32, in passing would have thought they were seeing the picture of suburban contentment. She was an adoring wife, a doting mother. She was a God-fearing member of the choir at Abundant Life Church in Memphis, which she attended each Sunday morning and evening (and on Wednesday nights). She had two fine-looking, well-adjusted boys, ages 12 and 8. She had a handsome husband, Ron Owens, the respected — even beloved — associate director of nursing at a local hospital. It was almost abnormal, how normal her life appeared.
It was 1985, and the family shared a two-story woodframe house with shutters flanking gabled windows. It sat on a quiet street lined with massive oaks in the conservative, mostly white Memphis suburb of Bartlett, Tenn. — the kind of place where people picket the 7-11 store because it carries Playboy. A colleague of Ron's said they were almost anachronistic in their white-bread perfection, a sort of contemporary Cleaver family.
Yet the picture-book house — and within it, the family that occasionally wore matching polo shirts and looked as though they had been clipped out of a Christian Living magazine — was anything but a dream.
Gaile, the devout churchgoer, was a convicted embezzler who couldn't stop herself. She'd been convicted of 35 counts of forgery for stealing thousands of dollars from a local doctor's office, where she worked as a receptionist. It wasn't the first time Gaile stole from employers. Nor would it be the last.
But she wasn't the only one whose behavior undercut the flawless façade. Ron, as it turned out, had a mistress — a woman he affectionately referred to as "Lollipop." What's more, his respectable resume, including his supposed exploits in Vietnam, was riddled with lies. That was merely the preamble, though, to what Gaile would later claim was an abusive secret existence hidden away behind the pretty house's firmly closed doors.
The couple's sex life, she maintained, was a nightmare of "perversions" and painful "sexual humiliations" that began on their wedding night. And it didn't end until 13 years later, on the night of Feb. 17, 1985 — when Ron Owens was found with his skull crushed on the living-room floor of that perfect home.
The bludgeoning, police and prosecutors would learn, had been perpetrated by a hitman. The person who put out the hit was Gaile Owens.
Ron's was only the second murder the otherwise serene suburban enclave had seen in 80 years. It was a matter of days before someone stepped forward, one of several men claiming Gaile had solicited them to kill her husband.
What would make a churchgoing mother of two drive repeatedly to one of Memphis' roughest districts, offering a rotating cast of thieves, drunks and criminals money to murder the father of her children? Gaile Owens knew — but she never took the stand in the trial that ensued. She told her attorneys she never wanted her two sons to hear what took place behind her closed bedroom doors. Instead, she sat in silence as the prosecution painted her as a cold-blooded murderess hungry for her husband's multiple life-insurance policies.
The jury, therefore, never heard about Ron's affair. Worse, they never learned that the "bad marriage" she mentioned to one hitman may in fact have been a litany of grotesque abuses. Without those possibly mitigating factors, the jury was untroubled. Following a short deliberation, they pronounced Gaile guilty and sentenced her to death — a first in Tennessee history. She has been on death row now for 25 years. Just this week, the state set her execution date: Sept. 28, 2010.
Gov. Phil Bredesen can step in and grant her clemency if he chooses. If not, his legacy will grant him a dubious distinction — nearly two centuries have passed since a woman was executed in this state. The last was a hanging around the time Tennessee Congressman David Crockett spoke out against President Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act. Should the state of Tennessee proceed with killing Gaile Owens, Bredesen will become the first Tennessee governor to preside over a woman's execution in almost 200 years.
This is not the story of an innocent woman wrongly accused. By Gaile's own admission, her guilt is one of the few unequivocal facts found in this story. As the direct consequence of her actions, her children grew up without their father, or their mother. But other women have served less time for greater crimes. Even if you reject the idea that a convicted killer can redeem herself — and those who know her today insist she is not the desperate, unstable person a jury sentenced to death 25 years ago — the story of Gaile Owens raises glaring questions about equal justice, inconsistent standards, and a judicial system that often takes an antiquated view of spousal abuse. It also demonstrates the sometimes infuriating limits of judicial review, which does nothing to remedy the damage caused by inept or inadequate representation at trial or post-conviction. In Gaile Owens' case, that damage may literally kill her.
In the realm of crime and punishment and the near-incoherent manner in which death is dealt to the convicted in this country — this state in particular — Gaile Owens is a testament to how ill-equipped the court system is to consider what transpires within the four walls of a couple's bedroom. Was she a money-hungry black widow and a pathological thief? Or was she a battered wife who deserved help, as her attorneys and defense witnesses claim, and got a death sentence instead?
As it turns out, nothing in Gaile Owens' life is black and white.
Wilson Kirksey must have prayed as hard as anyone had ever prayed as members of the Calvary United Pentecostal Church approached him. They laid hands on his head and palsied limbs, their penitent brows bowed in prayer.
The boy had cerebral palsy and unspecified other deficits, and his condition was irreversible. But that meant nothing to the church and its fervent adherents. Faith would overcome all, they preached. If the boy's faith were pure, healing would surely follow.
The message was as clear to Wilson as it was to his little sister Gaile, looking on from the congregation. Time after time, Wilson would offer himself up to the laying on of hands, waiting for his miracle. Time after time, the boy would come away crushed, blaming himself.
Of all the forces that would mold Marcia Gaile Kirksey into the woman she became, for good or ill, her faith is one of the most powerful. This fact — along with most everything else known about Gaile Owens, who has never granted an interview to the media in her 25 years on death row — comes from two assessments conducted by clinical social workers hired by the defense.
The most extensive of these came from Jan Vogelsang, who compiled a similar assessment for the defense of Zacarias Moussaoui, the Al-Qaeda member who claimed he was the 20th 9/11 hijacker. Gaile told Voglesang in 2009 that she was scared by her church's services. The many paths leading to Hell stood out in the preacher's sermons more than the few pointing to Heaven. Meanwhile, innocents such as Wilson only suffered without relent. Speaking in tongues upset her, and the children were expected to participate in order to demonstrate an ability to channel the Holy Ghost.