Tennessee moves closer to executing first woman

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 at 11:01pm

The first woman ever to be sentenced to death in Tennessee is a step closer to execution Tuesday after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied her habeas petition in a 2-1 decision. Nashville-based Judge Gil Merritt filed the dissenting opinion.

Gaile K. Owens was convicted in Shelby County in 1986 of accessory before the fact in the 1985 murder of her husband, Ronald Owens. Sidney Porterfield, the man who was convicted of killing her husband, was also sentenced to death. Owens was convicted on Jan. 4, 1986. She entered prison on Feb. 21, 1986.

Owens argued for relief before the Sixth Circuit on grounds that she received ineffective assistance of counsel when trial counsel failed to adequately investigate her background and failed to overcome the state’s hearsay objection to one of her penalty-phase witnesses; the state violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to turn over letters between her deceased husband and his paramour; and the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering, as mitigating evidence, testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in return for receiving a life sentence.

While the majority rejected the appeal, Merritt wrote a six-page dissent arguing that “this is not a closed case.”

“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,” he writes.

With the Sixth Circuit’s ruling, Owens’ options are to file appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court and/or Gov. Phil Bredesen.

According to court documents, Owens solicited several men, in early 1985, to kill her husband before Porterfield agreed to commit the crime.

On Feb. 17, 1985, Ronald Owens was found in the family's den with his skull smashed from at least 21 blows from a tire iron. 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.

Court records state that after Ronald Owens’ corpse was discovered, George James, one of the other men solicited by Owens, feared that he might be a murder suspect and went to police. James agreed to wear a wire and meet with Owens. At the meeting, Owens explained that she had her husband killed because of “bad marital problems” and paid James $60 to keep quiet, the records say.

Police listened from a nearby car and arrested Owens immediately and Porterfield soon afterwards, records show. Owens ultimately confessed to hiring, and Porterfield to committing, the murder. Porterfield stated that Owens offered him $17,000 to murder her husband, and also that he went to Owens’ house about 9 p.m. on the night of the murder, ambushed Ronald Owens in the backyard, and then fought with him until they ended up inside, where Porterfield beat Ronald Owens to death. Gaile Owens explained to the police that she had Ronald killed because “we’ve just had a bad marriage over the years, and I just felt like he had been cruel to me.” Police, at the time, said there was very little physical violence.

Prior to trial, the prosecution offered both defendants a life sentence in return for a guilty plea, contingent on both of them accepting the plea. Owens accepted, but Porterfield refused, so the offer was withdrawn and the pair was tried jointly for first-degree murder. Neither defendant testified at trial.

Stacy Rector, executive director of the anti-death penalty Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killings (TCASK), told The City Paper in response to the ruling that she was not happy with the decision.

“I am very disappointed by the 6th Circuit court’s decision in the case of Gaile Owens," Rector said adding "the death penalty in this case is grossly disproportionate considering that Ms. Owens was willing to plead guilty and spend the rest of her life in prison for this crime; but, because her co-defendant wouldn’t plead, the case went to trial. Her attorneys spent only two hours of pretrial investigation and no hours — literally zero hours — preparing for her sentencing hearing.”

Rector also pointed to a Monday recommendation from the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty that the Tennessee General Assembly create an independent commission to oversee capital defense in Tennessee based on the “woefully inadequate defense many capital defendants receive at trial.”

“The case of Gaile Owens is but one more example of this problem,” Rector said.

“How can Tennesseans trust the death penalty system to be fair and accurate when defendants on trial for their lives are getting such terrible representation?” she asked. “Her attorneys never presented the jury with evidence of her extensive abuse by her husband and to add to the unfairness, the prosecution withheld evidence which could have given the jury a more accurate picture of what Ms. Owens endured over the years leading up to the crime. Given what we now know about the effects of domestic violence today, the death penalty for Gaile Owens is just totally inappropriate.”

Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons issued a statement after the ruling, saying the decision was the correct one.

“We’re pleased with the sixth circuit’s decision affirming the district court’s ruling that Gaile Owens received competent representation and upheld the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty in this case.”

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6 Comments on this post:

By: JeffF on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Maybe she should have said she was forced to wear high heels. That would have gotten her off.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

LOL!

By: girliegirl on 12/31/69 at 6:00

The court system here is extremely lenient towards women, almost to the point of chivalry. When we tried to keep our stalker in jail, they felt it was too strong for her, after all, she was a young woman. The fact that she was dangerous and had tried on numerous occasions to harm my husband and his little boy seemed to have no bearing on the case at the time.

By: shenanigan on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I've have always heard it said you can back a person into the conter wall and stomp the sh*t our of him or her and do it everyday. Some people it would take only one time until he or she fight back others longer but eventually all will fight back that is human nature. It is a shame that the longer it takes the more harsher the court system is own that person who has gotten the sh8t beaten out of them so many times. Life is not fair and does not treat all the same

By: PromosFriend on 12/31/69 at 6:00

shenanigan: I've have always heard it said you can back a person into the conter wall and stomp the sh*t our of him or her and do it everyday.What the heck is a conter wall?While we obviously do not have the details of this case, on the surface its seems unreasonable that the woman would not be given a new sentencing hearing. That she plead guilty and attempted to plea bargain to a life sentence shows that she was taking responsibility for her actions. Why would the prosecutors demand that her plea be tied to the guy that carried out the actual murder?

By: VERITAS101 on 5/15/09 at 5:53

I'm the daughter of the foreman that served on this jury. My dad has railed about this case for 23 yrs! He (and his fellow jurors) heard enough evidence to determine the guilt of these people. Whether their trials were severed from one another doesn't change their individual guilt, and if a person kills another person they SHOULD receive like compensation for their crime - i.e. death.

Not only did Gail Owens contract for her husband to be murdered, but she did this multiple times. Her husband was savagely beaten and she then allowed their young son to "discover" his body. This woman is a monster and society should have rid themselves of her 23 yrs ago!

Her pleas are a sham and an attempt to further clog the courts and stay her (hopefully) eventual execution. What difference would her "background" at the time make?!? What difference does it make what one of her witnesses said "in the penalty phase"?!? What difference does it make IF her husband had 10,000 lovers?!? I can't speak to the qualifications of her atty at the time, for my father never mentioned them, but Portfield's atty is now a local judge. I doubt that anyone could accuse his counsel of being inadequate.

My father did, however, think that these people were guilty as sin and that justice delayed is justice denied. EXECUTE THESE TWO AND BE DONE WITH IT! Why should they continue to enjoy life while the husband/father (and somebody's son, sibling, relative) lies cold in the ground?

Furthermore, where was the local newspaper's coverage of this? Why do we Memphians have to go to Nashville to find out about things relevant to our own city?!? (Or to be contacted by a defense atty fishing for 23 yr old memories in order to exonerate a murder!)