I'm not quite sure why I haven't written about Gaile Owens before now. But I know why I'm writing about her today.
A bit of history is in order.
On February 17, 1985, when Gaile and Ron Owens had been married for 13 years, Ron was bludgeoned to death. Brantley Hargrove, writing in the Nashville Scene, tells the next part.
Detectives were later tipped off that Gaile had made several visits to a rough Memphis neighborhood, hoping to solicit someone to murder her husband. Among those she approached was a local mechanic, Sidney Porterfield, who after hours of interrogation confessed to the killing. . . . Because evidence against Porterfield was scant — aside from his confession — prosecutor Don Strother offered the two defendants a plea bargain: Life in prison, but only if both parties accepted the deal.
. . . Gaile, who never disputed her part in seeking Ron's death, immediately pleaded guilty. But co-defendant Porterfield rejected the offer. As a result, the agreement was yanked.
What had looked like a perfect marriage was, instead, a nightmare. Neither Gaile nor Ron was the perfect picture each presented. Here's Hargrove again, from a much longer, two-part article this is from the summary of Part I at the beginning of Part II. (Really, it's worth reading the whole thing.)
In 1985, Gaile Owens was an active member of her church and a singer in the choir — a charming Southern woman with such sterling Middle American credentials, some thought of her as a contemporary June Cleaver. She was the mother of two handsome boys; she was the devoted wife of Ron Owens, who was a pillar in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett and the associate director of nursing at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis. He was a Vietnam medic, twice wounded — or at least he said he was. Together, they were the kind of family Ron's friends wanted for themselves someday.
But if the family unit seemed too good to be true, it was. Gaile and Ron hid dark secrets few, if any, knew about — the legacy of Gaile's dark and violent childhood, the alleged marital sex abuse that bordered on mutilation, her embezzlements and his extramarital affairs. In a final corrosion of the American dream the Owens family seemed to embody, Gaile began searching for a hitman to murder her husband.
Gaile chose not to testify at her trial because she didn't want to boys to know what their father was like and what she'd suffered. She was sentenced to die.
And there she sat. On death row. For 25 years.
She was, it appears, a model inmate. She turned her life around. She counseled other women. She became what she might have been.
Yet, court after court denied her relief. That's how these things work. The post-trial litigation is all about technicalities. And of course she's factually guilty. There's no question she hired a hit man to kill Ron. And though Porterfield has continuously denied that he did it (after that long-ago and frankly questionable confession), he's on death row, too. And when there is evidence, well, her post-conviction lawyers weren't much good and thier expert had useful conclusions but horrible presentation. He was savaged in court and again in various court opinions.
By 2009, she'd essentially run out of courts. She asked Governor Phil Bredesen to grant clemency. To commute her sentence to life in prison. To give her the deal the prosecutor took off the table because Porterfield wanted no part of it.
And then she got an execution date. September 28, 2010.
Except, something remarkable happened. On July 14 of this year, Governor Bredesen commuted her sentence. Give her life. The sentence she was offered 25 years ago. The sentence she was denied because Sidney Porterfield didn't want the same thing.
And not just life. It's life with a chance of parole. May 28, 2012 is the first date. No guarantee, but a chance.
It's quite amazing.
As I said, I'm not sure why I haven't written about Owens before this, but I know exactly why I wanted to write about it now.
I said the other day, that I was at a death penalty defense continuing legal education seminar. From Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, 250 or so of us learned about the latest nuances of AEDPA. We were told about new work in psychology, given advice about motions and investigation and how to approach the US Supreme Court. There were sessions on innocence and on representing people who'd done really horrific things. It's superb education, and necessary for those of us who do this work. (Prosecutors have their own seminars where they get taught how best to secure and preserve death sentences.)
Anyhow, what got me to write this were the closing remarks, something to send us out charged up and ready to return to the fray.
This year, they were from a member of Gaile's habeas corpus litigation team, and they brought tears to pretty much everyone's eyes. She talked about not giving up, about loving the client, about caring and fighting and about the miracle of learning the commutation. And she told us this. She said that whenever she spoke about Gaile, and whenever she does, she says,
This story is the story of hope, redemption, and forgiveness.
Yep. It is.
And so are they all, really. Ours, if not the clients'.
I've been doing this a long time. I get angry, depressed. I feel hopeless.
But there is hope, redemption, and forgiveness. For the client. For me. For us. There's not always success, of course. And so we are hopeless, unredeemed, unforgiven.
But there's hope, too. And redemption. And forgiveness.
Along with the anger, it's yet another thing that gets us up in the morning.