Attorneys representing death row inmate Gaile K. Owens filed a formal request with the Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday to deny the attorney general’s motion to set an execution date and commute Owens’ sentence to life in prison.
Owens, 57, was a victim of severe domestic violence who was arrested in 1985 and later convicted for hiring a man to kill her abusive husband, Ronald Owens. She has exhausted her appeals, and unless the governor or court commutes her sentence, she would be the first woman executed by the state since Eve Martin was hanged in 1820.
The court has the authority to commute death sentences but has not exercised that power since 1901. Owens’ attorneys — public defenders Gretchen Swift and Kelley Henry — urged the court take this rare step due to the unusual circumstances of her case.
• She is the only inmate in Tennessee prison history to receive a death sentence after accepting a prosecutor’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. She was forced to trial based on the decision of her co-defendant, Sidney Porterfield, who is likely mentally retarded.
• No court or jury ever heard that Owens was a battered woman and suffered from battered women’s syndrome. She never testified in her own defense because she wanted to protect her young sons from the details of the sexual and emotional abuse she suffered.
Owens’ attorneys submitted their argument on Friday in response to the state’s request to set a date for her execution by lethal injection. Owens is an inmate at the Tennessee Prison for Women, where she has been a model prisoner and currently works as a clerk.
“I have, pending with the governor, a petition for commutation which I believe he will address after the Tennessee Supreme Court has acted on the attorney general’s motion for an execution date. The courts have one more chance to get this right,” said George Barrett, Owens’ clemency attorney. “Otherwise, we will be executing a battered woman. That would be a first for Tennessee.”
If the court does not commute Owens’ death sentence, her final legal recourse will be Gov. Phil Bredesen, who may also commute her sentence. Owens would be the seventh person executed by the state since 2000 and the fourth woman in state history.