A vote that brings tears

Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Kay West

Little more than a year ago, Gaile Owens was scheduled to be the first woman executed by the state of Tennessee in almost 200 years. Last Wednesday, the former death row inmate moved a step closer to freedom.

In a crowded hearing room at the Tennessee Prison for Women, Owens stood before Patsy Bruce, a state parole board member. To win parole, four of the seven board members must vote in her favor. 

“I have decided I am going to vote ‘yes,’ ” Bruce said. Tears streamed down Owens’ face, as some spectators — including high-profile supporters such as former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler, McNeely Pigott & Fox partner Katy Varney and former Titans Coach Jeff Fisher — applauded.

No attendee, however, overshadowed Stephen Owens, Gaile Owens’ 39-year-old son. At age 11, in 1985, he discovered his father Ron’s bleeding body at the family’s Memphis home. At age 12, he testified at his mother’s murder trial — for the prosecution.

At the hearing, however, Owens asked Bruce that his mother be paroled and allowed “to come home to be with her family,” which includes two grandsons.

The emotional hearing was the latest chapter in a quarter-century saga. In 1985, after Ron Owens’ murder, a police investigation found that Gaile Owens had offered money to strangers if they would kill her husband. Sidney Porterfield was ultimately convicted alongside Gaile Owens for the crime, though neither said money exchanged hands. Nor did police find the murder weapon.

Perhaps most damaging, though, was that juries never got to hear Owens’ claims of spousal sexual abuse. This factor might well have mitigated the severity of her sentence, supporters argued — even her conviction.

Over the years, a support group known as Friends of Gaile has pushed for a pardon, clemency or a commuted life sentence. Then-Gov. Phil Bredesen granted the third option on July 14, 2010, sparing her life.

Owens’ file will now pass to the other six parole board members, one at a time, until four votes are tallied — yea or nay.