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July 14, 2010

Tennessee Gov commutes death sentence of woman condemned for murder-for-hire

As detailed in this local press report, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen "this morning commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens to life imprisonment."  Here are more of the details:

Ms. Owens was convicted by a Shelby County jury in 1986 of being an accessory before the fact to first-degree murder in the murder-for-hire plot of her husband, Roger Owens. He was beaten to death in 1985.

Gov. Bredesen said there were two issues that were important to him. The first is “there’s at least the possibility” of Ms. Owens having been in an “abusive marriage.”

Secondly, Gov. Bredesen said, prosecutors had originally offered Ms. Owens a plea bargain deal, which she had accepted. “The district attorney clearly considered it an appropriate resolution as well,” Gov. Bredesen said.

But the governor said the plea bargain was conditioned on a plea by her co-conspirator, who rejected it. Ms. Owens was then tried and convicted.

Gov. Bredesen said a review of state records show 33 instances of women involved in first degree murder. In only two cases — one of them involving Ms. Owens — were there death sentences. Then-Gov. Lamar Alexander issued a commutation in the other case. The governor said in one case, a woman was sentenced to life without parole. In 30 others, the women were sentenced to life.

Under the commutation, Ms. Owens could come up for consideration of parole in the spring of 2012.

The official commutation document from Governor Bredesen's office can be found at this link.

When I heard some of the details of this case via this piece on the CBS Sunday Morning show last month, I predicted to my wife that Ms. Owens would likely have her death sentence commuted.  Thus, I am not really surprised by what Governor Bredesen decided to do here, but I am a bit surprised that he made this decision more than two months before her scheduled execution date.

July 14, 2010 at 08:27 PM | Permalink


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A garbage commutation. Owens selfishly convinced another person to toss his life away. Moreover, the offer of a plea deal is not an expression that the prosecution felt that LWOP was the best sentence, just an acceptable one. But what do you expect from a Democrat?

Posted by: federalist | Jul 14, 2010 9:05:42 PM

1. There is no reason to believe her story. She claimed abuse 20 years after the crime, has no witnesses or hospital reports to back her up and every reason to lie.

2. She would never have been up for commutation had she been male.

3. Only the death sentence of the WHITE, FEMALE conspirator has been reduced. The death sentence of the BLACK, MALE, POSSIBLY RETARDED conspirator has not.

4. Why should she have the chance at parole?

Given that, it's an act of cowardice over justice by Bredesen.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Jul 14, 2010 11:17:50 PM

If the governor is up for re-election this year it makes sense to do it early. The earlier such actions are taken the more time there is for people to forget them. More time to get bashed with them too, but forgetting is the more likely course.

I also find it amazing that she is now parole eligible, that is just madness.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 14, 2010 11:23:59 PM

Reading the above comments to this shows how really close some in America are to the clerics of Iran who would stone to death a woman. As The Times says, degrees of depravity in the method of execution can be no justification for the death penalty. In this case, the law reneged on a plea-deal for life. If you accept the process and principle of plea deals, then there must be honesty in the outcome. No wonder Switzerland wasn't prepared to accept the word of the US in its decision not to extradite Polanski. I hope the UK follows suit in its forthcoming review of extradition agreements with the US. But I'm pleased to see that Gov. Bredesen showed some leadership and honor in this matter.

Posted by: peter | Jul 15, 2010 3:13:29 AM

Right, federalist. It can't just pass as gesture of mercy. It must instead be explained as a characteristic failure by a weak-kneed, bleeding-heart, "cowardly," soft-on-crime Democrat.

Peter's right. Sometimes some of you guys do sound like a lynch mob.

Posted by: John K | Jul 15, 2010 8:36:20 AM

Moreover, the offer of a plea deal is not an expression that the prosecution felt that LWOP was the best sentence, just an acceptable one.

Ummm...is the prosecutor quoted somewhere as having said that? Or is this just an assumption?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jul 15, 2010 9:35:29 AM

@ Peter
She got a sentence appropriate to her crime, years of appeals and free representation during the trial and appeals. When you equate that to a woman being stoned for adultery, it isn't clever or deep, it's just ridiculous. Or it means free representation and a fair trial don't matter to you.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Jul 15, 2010 12:33:05 PM

MikeinCT - the reasons for the death sentences, by whatever means (all of which are described by The Times as "degrees of depravity"), are not the point. It is the readiness of one human being to pointlessly and unnecessarily support the killing of another, under the cloak of legality or religion, that is the issue. Even more so when the processes that lead to that eventual event are known to be so flawed and unreliable. Moreover, in accepting that potential unreliability by engaging in a necessarily protracted appeal process, inmates are then subjected to some of the harshest prison conditions in the world, leading often to immense psychological and other harm to both guilty and innocent, as well as to families of both victims and the accused. The death penalty has no rightful place in modern society.

Posted by: peter | Jul 15, 2010 1:13:58 PM

As I understand it, the def was offered a plea to life, which she took. But it was voided because it was conditioned on a codef taking a plea. Is that right? If so, in my opinion, the joint plea offer was blatantly unethical and the final result is exactly what should have happened. I ran into this exact situation in a murder case. The DA offered one of my clients a plea if another of my clients took a plea. I told the DA she better retract that or she didn't even want to think about how big the fight would be. The linkage was severed and my client got his plea that was originally offered.

The governor did exactly the right thing. Restored the original offer and acceptance.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Jul 15, 2010 5:05:29 PM


So long as something can validly be considered a crime I support the possibility and in some cases even the probability of execution for it. My interest is very much more on what can legitimately be criminalized.

I doubt you would find many people who would say that murder for hire is not solidly on the legitimate side of that division.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 15, 2010 7:15:05 PM

The next time I murder someone, I will bring up the "possibility that I was a victim of verbal insult to my dignity." This criminal lover invented a new excuse for murder. Naturally, this feminist Democrat targets the productive male, once again, declaring immunity for his murderer and open hunting season.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 15, 2010 10:29:53 PM

This is a letter which I wrote to her lawyer to give to the Governor:

RE: Clemency Application of Gaile Owens

Dear Mr. Barrett:

In your clemency application to the Governor I would ask that you please include this letter which addresses the impact of the battered woman syndrome in criminal cases. As you must know I drafted the Tennessee Death Penalty statute in 1976 when I was an Assistant State Attorney General. I still support the death penalty in appropriate cases.

I am aware that your client was sentenced to death for the murder-for-hire of her husband. The 1976 death penalty statute had as an aggravating circumstance murder-for-hire. The statute also contains a requirement that mitigating factors be considered.

A traditional mitigation factor in criminal cases concerns the well-documented fact that a woman who was abused by her husband may act in an extraordinary manner. This, in no way, justifies the killing but it is frequently a ground for diminished capacity or mitigation of punishment.

There have been numerous cases where the battered spouse syndrome has worked either a reduction in the grade of homicide or has spared the life of the woman in a death penalty case. The question, of course, is whether you can really compare one case to another, risking the proverbial apples to oranges comparison complaint.

I suggest that while comparing several cases to that of Ms. Owens might result in a conclusion that her sentence is disproportionate, a better analysis would be to examine those instances where there were two trials involving the same woman where the battered woman syndrome was utilized in the second trial but not the first. This is a literal apples-to-apples comparison.

I had occasion to represent Ms. Laurie Zimmerman who was convicted of murdering her husband in Murfreesboro. She stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife. Ms. Zimmerman was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. I appealed her conviction because her lawyers were ineffective in failing to present the battered woman syndrome to the jury and because they failed to call her as a witness in her own defense. The conviction was reversed and the Tennessee Appellate Courts recognized, for the first time, the battered woman’s syndrome as a viable evidentiary ground in criminal cases. The court agreed with me that her lawyers should have presented available mental health testimony concerning the battered woman’s syndrome and that she should have testified to explain her situation. Ms. Zimmerman was granted a new trial.

I represented Ms. Zimmerman in her new trial. This time, however, we presented the relevant testimony concerning the battered spouse syndrome and Ms. Zimmerman testified to the jury about the years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband. She was convicted of the least serious grade of homicide and was placed on full probation by the judge.

I am enclosing copies of the relevant Appellate Court documents which should illustrate the profound effect battered spouse syndrome evidence has in a criminal case. This was the same set of facts except in one trial we used the battered spouse syndrome to full effect and in her earlier trial the jury was denied the opportunity to consider this proof. In one trial she was condemned to over a decade of prison and in the second Ms. Zimmerman was placed on full probation: a remarkable difference.

I am absolutely convinced that had your client the opportunity to present the battered spouse syndrome to the jury, she would have not been sentenced to death. Certainly there is sufficient reasonable doubt as to that penalty so that the commutation to life without the possibility of parole would be in order.

I am also aware of how rare executive clemency is granted in Tennessee. Indeed, during my tenure as an Assistant Attorney General I was also involved in the clemency-for-cash scandal: I was one of the three who went to the federal government to complain that pardons were being sold. That scandal forever contaminated the process of executive clemency in Tennessee.

I firmly believe that, in appropriate circumstances, our Governor should exercise measured judgment in the exercise of his clemency authority. Ms. Owens’ case demonstrates an instance where a substantial change in the law dictates a different punishment. When she was tried, Tennessee did not recognize the battered woman syndrome. Today, it does and thus some consideration should be given to this important, and now well-accepted, legal doctrine.

Under all the circumstances I suggest that under an objective view of both the law and the facts Ms. Owens’ sentence should be commuted from death to life. The law should grant her no greater relief but justice dictates no less.

Very truly yours,


David L. Raybin

cc: Mr. John Seigenthaler, Chairman Emeritus, The Tennessean.

Posted by: David Raybin | Jul 16, 2010 12:16:48 AM

Battered woman syndrome does not exist. The lawyer catering to feminists and the encouragement of murder of productive males is appalling and irresponsible. However, it is not surprising given the campaign of the lawyer to destroy the American family by attacking it from all sides.

Question. If the family of the murder victim hired their own assassins to go after the murderer of their loved one, and after all lawyers that prevented justice, could they get calls for clemency from these lying hypocritical lawyers?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 17, 2010 6:33:49 PM

"It must instead be explained as a characteristic failure by a weak-kneed, bleeding-heart, 'cowardly,' soft-on-crime Democrat."

Not just that, but also an unprincipled act justified by disingenuousness. Let's face it, honesty and clear thinking on matters of crime and punishment aren't exactly associated with Democrats.

And then there's Mr. Raybin's screed. Yuck. The idea that the case of Ms. Zimmerman and Ms. Owens are "apples to apples" is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous. Lest it be forgotten, Ms. Owens didn't snap and kill her husband--she planned it and hired a hitman. Now, of course, the hitman deserved his death sentence, but the bottom line is that without Ms. Owens, the hitman would not be on the row. Ms. Owens has culpability for the hitman's fate. Mr. Raybin makes no mention of that inconvenient fact, while assuring us, of course, that he favors the death penalty.

We also don't hear of the paucity of evidence showing that Mr. Owens was an abuser. Maybe he pestered his wife for kinky sex. So what? I guess his suffering gets a discount because he wanted something more than missionary every once in a while.

And what of the "battered wives don't get death" argument. Of course, not all battered wives hire hitmen. And more to the point, not all torture killers get death either.

Finally, this little gem cannot go unmentioned:

"I am absolutely convinced that had your client the opportunity to present the battered spouse syndrome to the jury, she would have not been sentenced to death. "

Gee, Mr. Raybin, did you miss the day in law school where they taught that criminal defendants on trial for their lives could present basically any evidence with respect to mitigation? In my view, bad law, but law nonetheless.

Amazing how stupid and sentimental people get when it comes to executing a murderer. But of course, Raybin favors capital punishment.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 17, 2010 10:50:09 PM

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