Stephen Owens, son of a woman who just today received a reprieve from the death chamber with a commutation from Gov. Phil Bredesen, sounded a note of relief Wednesday afternoon in clemency attorney George Barrett’s office.
“The greatest thing about it is … I just want to be able to say that our family’s legacy didn’t end with the execution of my mother and have to sit down with my kids and explain that,” Owens began, taking questions from media for the first time. “And the governor has done a great thing to give me the ability not to have that conversation.”
It was only last August— after a quarter century without contact — that Stephen first walked into the visitation room of Unit 3 of the Tennessee Prison for Women to see his mother, Gaile Owens. The last time they saw each other, he was sitting in the witness stand, just a boy, testifying for the prosecution.
In Bredesen’s commutation, he cites the guilty plea she signed — which became void when the man whom she was convicted of hiring to carry out the murder refused to sign it — along with the “allegations of domestic violence and emotional abuse that, while inconclusive, raise the possibility” that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, or battered-woman syndrome, due to sexual abuse she claims she received at the hands of husband Ron Owens. Ron was an associate director of nursing at a local Memphis hospital whom she, Stephen and his brother Brian found bludgeoned to death in their Bartlett, Tenn., home.
Instead of death, her sentence is now life, retroactive from her conviction. Because of this, she’ll be up for parole earlier than she might otherwise have been, owing to the fact that the crime for which she was convicted — accessory to first-degree murder — carried a lesser sentence at the time of her trial in early 1986. Bredesen granted her 1,000 days of prisoner sentence reduction credits, and her attorneys said she could be before the parole board by 2012, if not 2011 at the very earliest.
“Gaile’s going to have an excellent chance to make parole the first time she goes out,” Kelley Henry, Gaile’s federal public defender, said. “She’s has a pristine record at the prison and she’s beloved, if you can be beloved, out there. The staff relies on her and her professionalism. She’s never missed a day of work except for when she went to court in 1996.”
Stephen Owens said he planned to visit Gaile as soon as he left the press conference, where he hinted that the two would begin looking forward to being a part of each other’s lives rather than facing down the prospect of losing her on Sept. 28, which the Tennessee Supreme Court set as her execution date.
“And when she, if she, does get a parole granted, she will be welcomed with my immediate family here in Nashville, and we’ll take those steps as we need to," he said.