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A Letter to Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen: Mercy for Gaile Owens

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Dear Governor Bredesen,

I write to ask that you offer mercy to Gaile Owens.

You well know that, after the Tennessee Supreme Court refused to hear the case of the 57 year old Gaile Owens, who has spent the last 25 years in prison for setting her husband's murder in motion in 1985, only you stand in the way between the rest of her life spent in jail, which Ms.Owens is asking for, and her execution by lethal injection on September 28th. If Gaile Owens is killed, she will be the first women to be executed by your state since Eve Martin was hanged in 1820.

You know, too, that the facts involving Ms. Owens' battering from day one of her marriage were never brought to the court's attention and that her husband repeatedly and falsely described himself as one who served as a twice wounded Vietnam medic. This lie was part of his published obituary. You no doubt recall Mary Winkler, another Tennessee citizen, who shot and killed her minister husband. Ms. Winkler served seven months in prison and subsequently was able to receive full custody of her children.

Throughout her marriage, Ms. Owens was forced to endure violent sexual degradation that began on her wedding night and never ceased, including repeating certain acts until she vomited, and having foreign objects, such as a wine bottle and a marijuana pipe, inserted in her vagina and tear her rectum. Her husband accused her of not using proper precaution to avoid pregnancy, and just before the birth of their second son, she was hospitalized for a torn placenta due to sadistic sex. All of this occurred before the concept of marital rape was part of our judicial body of laws.

Governor Bredesen, I know that psychopathic killers can be male and female. But Gaile Owens is not a psychopath. For those with this character disorder show no guilt or remorse. On the contrary, Ms. Owens was frank about her guilt, almost from the very start. Soon after her arrest she explained, "I'm sorry. I wish I'd never done it....I felt like I had all that I could take over the years...just the mental abuse I felt I had been through."

Gaile Owens' 37 year old son, Stephen, describes his mother as "extremely remorseful and regretful," describing her prison years as "25 years reforming her life." Stephen Owens has asked you to spare his mother's life so that she is able to spend her remaining years continuing to attend her Bible study classes, counsel inmates and juggle a multitude of responsibilities in a setting where she has a stellar record and is respected by staff and inmates alike.

Gaile Owens had neither money nor connections. Her attorneys were denied funding to hire an expert witness experienced in abuse and trauma. Still, at the time of her trial it was well documented that she suffered from battered women's syndrome, a state hallmarked by depression, anxiety, fear, and tattered self-esteem. Women who endure emotional, physical, and sexual abuse live in a constant state of humiliation and shame, and in time cannot make rational decisions or offer sound judgments. Rather than clearly see the impact of the abuse they have endured, and the pathology of the abuser, they view themselves as "less than," lacking, and impaired.

It was in this state of mind that that Gaile Owens hired Sidney Potterfield, a complete stranger she met on the streets of Memphis, to kill her husband.

Not wanting her young sons to hear what her husband had done to her, or appear to them as being so inadequate a lover that their father turned to another woman, Ms. Owens would not allow her abuse to be mentioned. For this reason she has consistently refused requests to tell her full story to the press.

Further, exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense. Jurors did not hear of sexually explicit love letters written to her husband, who was the associate director of nursing at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, by a woman on his staff. Though the prosecutor stated that the letters did not exist, they had been returned to Ron Owens' mistress. Police, however, had recorded notes from the correspondence, and these notes were used in the unsuccessful court appeal. At least one juror from the initial trial has come forward to say that had she had known of Ms. Owens' life, she would not have voted for the death penalty.

Gaile Owens is the only prisoner in Tennessee, and most likely the entire United States, to receive a death sentence after accepting the offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a life in prison. The offer was withdrawn when the co-defendant, Sidney Potterfield, refused to accept the plea. Further, a recent review of nine cases similar to this one, where in desperation a woman either killed or hired someone to kill a partner, shows that six have received early parole or probation and that two received life sentences with the eligibility for parole.

Governor Owens, I have seen again and again in over 30 years of working with those who endure horrendous suffering in their marriages that most likely this quality of pain was also known in childhood. This was the case of Gaile Owens, who faced the reality of another world of misery on her wedding night.

I have also seen that sometimes life in prison, as restrictive as it is, can be a woman's first experience with opportunity and hope. I ask you please to allow Gaile Owens to offer other women this hope. She knows what she did is wrong, and she has repented. I ask please that you honor truth and hope, and the office you hold, by showing her the mercy she has earned after a life of relentless suffering and subsequent repentence.


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