The first woman ever to be sentenced to death in Tennessee is a step closer to the death chamber today after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied her habeas petition in a 2-1 decision. Nashville based Judge Gil Merritt filed the dissenting opinion.
Gaile K. Owens was convicted in Shelby County in 1986 of accessory before the fact in the 1985 murder of her husband, Ronald Owens. The man who killed her husband, Sidney Porterfield, was also sentenced to death. Owens committed her crime on February 17, 1985 and was convicted on January 4, 1986. She entered prison on February 21, 1986.
According to court documents in early 1985, Owens solicited several men to kill her husband before Porterfield agreed to commit the crime.
On February 17, 1985, Ronald Owens was found in the family's den with his skull smashed from at least 21 blows from a tire iron. He had been beaten with so much force that fragments of his skull had been driven into his brain and his face had been driven into the floor. A pathologist's report showed extensive injuries to his hands, indicating that he had been trying to cover his head with his hands during the savage attack.
Court records go on to state:
After Ronald Owens's corpse was discovered, George James, one of the other men solicited by Owens, feared that he might be a murder suspect and went to the police. James agreed to wear a wire and meet with Owens. At the meeting, Owens explained that she had her husband killed because of "bad marital problems" and paid James $60 to keep quiet.
Police listened from a nearby car and arrested Owens immediately and Porterfield soon afterwards. Owens ultimately confessed to hiring, and Porterfield to committing, the murder. Porterfield stated that Owens offered him $17,000 to murder her husband, and also that he went to Owens' house about 9:00 pm on the night of the murder, ambushed Ronald Owens in the backyard, and then fought with him until they ended up inside where Porterfield beat Ronald Owens to death. Gaile Owens explained to the police that she had Ronald killed because "we've just had a bad marriage over the years, and I just felt like he had been cruel to me. There was very little physical violence."
Prior to trial, the prosecution offered both defendants a life sentence in return for a guilty plea, contingent on both of them accepting the plea. Owens accepted, but Porterfield refused, so the offer was withdrawn and the pair were tried jointly for first-degree murder. Neither defendant testified at trial.
The grounds that Owens argued for relief before the Sixth Circuit was that: 1) she received ineffective assistance of counsel when trial counsel failed to adequately investigate her background and failed to overcome the state's hearsay objection to one of her penalty-phase witnesses; 2) the state violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to turn over letters between her deceased husband and his paramour; and 3) the trial court unconstitutionally prevented her from offering, as mitigating evidence, testimony that she wanted to plead guilty in return for receiving a life sentence.
While the majority rejected the appeal, Merritt wrote a six page dissent arguing that "this is not a close case."
He stated: "The majority opinion slants and misconceives relevant facts and law in this case on each of the three major issues in order to uphold the death penalty. I will try to straighten out the case for the reader by introducing the actual facts and the correct legal principles to be applied."
With the Sixth Circuit's ruling, Owens' options are to file appeals with the United State Supreme Court and/or Governor Phil Bredesen.
To read a full copy of the majority and minority opinions on this case, click here.