Woman freed after 26 years on death row
After a quarter century on death row, Gaile Owens walked out of prison Friday with a few belongings and a simple wish: to walk in the park with her family.
The 58-year-old Memphis woman came within two months of being executed last year before her sentence was commuted not because she was innocent, but because then-Gov. Phil Bredesen thought her punishment was excessive.
Owens admitted to hiring a hit-man in 1985 to kill her husband and the father of her two children. Supporters who tirelessly made the case to release her say she was an abused wife who has rehabilitated herself in prison.
Owens was all smiles as she pushed a yellow laundry cart containing her belongings past the razor-wire fence of the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.
She gave her son, Stephen Owens, a long embrace and told him she loved him. She then turned to hug longtime cellmate Linda Oakley, who is now free. Well-wishers shouted: “We love you, Gaile!” and “Go to the beach!”
Then she and Oakley got into a car and left with Gene and Pat Williams, who have known Owens for 13 years through a prison Bible study they lead.
Owens did not speak to the media but issued a statement.
“I’m looking forward to leading a quiet, private but productive life,” it read. “But more than anything, I’m looking forward to being a mother and a grandmother. I can’t wait to see my grandchildren and to fulfill my dream of walking in the park with my family.”
The statement also said Owens plans to find a job and do volunteer work.
“I feel a responsibility to give back to those who have given so much to me,” it read.
Owens learned last week that the parole board had voted to set her free. No one spoke out against her release at the hearing three weeks earlier.
Many of those who helped her during her 26 years in prison were volunteers in the prison ministry, and several of them were gathered in the prison parking lot to welcome Owens.
“Gaile’s faith is a big part of her life and a huge part of her journey toward rehabilitation,” said Tina Hutchison, a volunteer choir director at the prison.
Hutchison said that on the day Owens received news of her commutation and was allowed to return to the general population, the choir members all stood and sang her favorite song, “Mighty to Save.”
Stephen Owens, who spoke briefly with reporters, also mentioned his religious faith, saying it was God who led him to visit his mother two years ago after not seeing her for more than two decades.
“It was the work of God in my life,” he said. “I was called by God to reconciliation.”
He said he doesn’t expect the transition to be easy.
“This will be a slow process that we will focus on one day at a time,” he said. “The days ahead will be completely new and different for all of us; but as always our confidence and trust are in God.”
He also said he was looking forward to spending the day with his mother.
“We’re looking forward to being a family again,” he said.
Supporters who urged Owens’ release claim she was a battered wife who refused to testify on her own behalf because she didn’t want her young sons to know about the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of their father.
Owens’ sentence was commuted to life in prison in July 2010 by Bredesen. He acknowledged the abuse claims but gave a different reason for his decision to spare her life. Bredesen said prosecutors had agreed not to seek the death penalty if Owens pleaded guilty but then put her on trial when her co-defendant wouldn’t accept the deal.
Sidney Porterfield, the man who bludgeoned Ron Owens to death with a tire iron, was also given the death penalty. He is still on death row.
At the time Owens was sentenced, in 1986, a life sentence meant serving 30 years, but Owens was eligible to be released early because of good conduct.
Marshall Chapman, a singer/songwriter and supporter who was at the prison, acknowledged Owens committed a terrible crime, but said she believes in redemption.
“And I feel like she’s paid her debt to society,” Chapman said.
Hutchison, the volunteer choir director, also spoke of Owens’ crime, saying, “What she did she never forgets it, never not thinks about it. But it’s a new beginning.”
Tennessee has executed six people since restoring the death penalty, all of them men. The state has not executed a woman for almost 200 years.
Only one woman currently is on death row. Christa Pike, 35, was sentenced in 1996 for the 1995 torture slaying of a fellow Knoxville Job Corps student. Pike was also convicted in 2004 for trying to strangle a fellow inmate during a prison fight.