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.”