In 1985, allegedly abusive husband Ronald Owens was beaten to death in a gruesome murder-for-hire scheme in Shelby County by a man his wife paid $17,000. Now, his former wife, Gaile K. Owens, sits on Tennessee’s death row, and could become only the 12th woman in the last 30-plus years to be executed in the United States.
Owens was convicted in 1988 in Shelby County of hiring Sidney Porterfield to murder Ronald Owens. Both sit on death row for a crime court records suggest was violent and savage. The crime began with Gaile Owens openly soliciting men to kill her husband. Records in the State v. Porterfield, 746 S.W. 2d 441 (Tenn. 1988), showed that she met with one of the would-be hitmen, Sidney Porterfield, at least three times.
“Ronald Owens was found in the family’s den on February 17, 1985, with his skull smashed from at least 21 blows from a tire iron,” the court record states. “He had been beaten with so much force that fragments of his skull had been driven into his brain and his face had been driven into the floor. Blood was splattered over the walls and floor. A pathologist’s report showed extensive injuries to his hands, indicating that he had been trying to cover his head with his hands during the savage attack.”
Owens’ case, though, is becoming a rallying point for anti-death penalty forces in Tennessee looking to reverse a recent trend of executions in the state under Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“I recognize that because Owens is a woman there may be more attention given to her as it is rare for a woman to be sentenced to death,” conceded Stacy Rector, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK). “Tennessee has only two women on its death row. However, I hope that citizens will not only pay close attention to the Owens case but also to the other troubling capital cases in Tennessee which demonstrate the brokenness of the death penalty system in our state.”
Last week, in a 2-1 decision, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s decision to implement the death penalty despite the vehement objections of Judge Gil Merritt, a Nashville resident.
In writing the dissenting opinion, Merritt lambasted his colleagues and accused the state of withholding evidence at trial, that Owens had ineffective counsel, that her rights were denied in trial and addressed a myriad of other problems he found with the case.
There are allegations in the court documents, accepted by Merritt and dismissed by his colleagues, that Gaile Owens suffered significant sexual and physical violence for years during her marriage to Ronald Owens.
There are several legal options keeping Owens from Tennessee’s death chamber. Her case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for further appeal. In addition, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger has in place an opinion ruling Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol unconstitutional, effectively stopping the state at present from executing anyone via lethal injection.
Politically, Owens’ fate rests in the hands of Gov. Phil Bredesen or more likely his successor.
The State of Tennessee is a staunchly pro-death penalty state that has executed four men since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976 — three of them under Bredesen including the controversial electrocution of Daryl K. Holton last year. Nationally, there have been 1,136 executions in that same time frame. Only 11 of those executed have been women. There are currently 87 people on death row in Tennessee, two of them are women.
In many cases, executing a woman has tested the resolve of proponents of state executions, perhaps none more so than the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas.
Tucker became a cause célèbre despite having been convicted of killing another woman with a pickaxe. Prominent figures from then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to televangelist Pat Robertson championed her cause and asked then Texas Gov. George W. Bush to commute her sentence. Bush let the execution go through on Feb. 3, 1998.
Did conservatives like Gingrich and Robertson support clemency because Tucker had become a devout Christian while incarcerated or because they believed that she had been reformed? Many men who have walked the “last mile” have claimed religion and reform before their demise, without the support of God’s gatekeepers. Was their support forthcoming because it involved executing a woman? In the decade since Tucker’s execution the questions remain.
There is no question that Owens is guilty of murder-for-hire. She had been willing to accept a plea bargain originally offered to her by prosecutors if she and her accomplice Porterfield pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of life without parole. Porterfield rolled the dice and rejected the offer, landing them both on death row.
Still, Rector and others maintain the problems they see in the Owens case are reflected in most of Tennessee’s death row cases.
“The case of Gaile Owens is a tragic story of abuse and murder which has caused her family and community great suffering,” Rector said. “At the same time, Owens sentence is also very problematic given the lack of adequate representation she received at trial as well as the prosecutor’s failure to turn over important evidence to the defense. Even more troubling, the problems highlighted in this case are not isolated ones since many of the other nearly 100 individuals on Tennessee’s death row have similar issues in their cases.”
The case will continue to wind through the legal process and judges will ponder Owens’ fate as well as the future of Tennessee’s lethal injection procedure. Meanwhile, Bredesen and every possible candidate for governor in 2010 will have to decide what they will do if the courts put the final decision in their hands.