Gov. Phil Bredesen announced Wednesday he is commuting the death sentence of Gaile Owens.
Owens, convicted in 1986 of accessory to the first-degree murder of her husband, was scheduled for execution in September. She would have been the first woman executed by the state in more than a century.
Calling the case "complex and emotional," the governor cited the "extraordinary" sentence rendered in the case and the fact that Owens had accepted a conditional plea agreement prior to her trial.
"Nearly all the similar cases have resulted in life-in-prison sentences," Bredesen said, pointing to the evidence of abuse by Owens' husband, Ron.
Bredesen announced that Owens will further receive 1,000 days of sentence credit — "considerably less" than she would have earned had her original sentence been life imprisonment — and will be eligible for parole in late spring 2012.
Owens' case has generated a great deal of attention because of the unusual circumstances of her plea deal: She and Sidney Porterfield, the man she hired to kill her husband, were both offered life sentences in exchange for guilty pleas. Owens agreed. Porterfield reneged.
Later, as claims of spousal abuse emerged, further questions were raised about the fairness of Owens' capital sentence, especially in the wake of the Mary Winkler trial — in which Winkler claimed a long history of abuse prior to killing her husband. Winkler was sentenced to 67 days in a mental health facility.
Owens drew some high-profile defenders, including John Siegenthaler Sr. and noted civil rights attorney George Barrett. At least one juror who voted for the death sentence said he would have changed his mind had he known about the abuse.
"This was not going to be a decision based on who is for it and who is against it," Bredesen said.
The governor called Barrett a half-hour before his Capitol Hill press conference and left it up to the attorney to contact Owens.