Gov. Phil Bredesen has commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens, a Tennessee woman who pleaded guilty to hiring a hit man to kill her husband in 1985.
Owens, convicted in Shelby County, will now serve a life sentence, although she will be eligible to plead her case for release before the state’s parole board in 2012.
Bredesen cited several reasons for canceling her Sept. 28 execution, including wanting to stay true to the original plea deal Owens struck with prosecutors prior to her trial. She agreed to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison but the deal disappeared when her co-defendant, Sidney Porterfield, rejected the deal.
“Whereas, this appears to me an extraordinary death penalty case in which the defendant admitted her involvement in the murder of her husband and attempted to accept the district attorney’s conditional offer of life imprisonment,” read the official commutation. “This acceptance was ineffective only because of her co-defendant’s refusal to accept such an agreement.”
The “extraordinary death penalty case” had different results than all other similar convictions of women who were involved in their husbands’ murder.
He said his office reviewed 33 cases of women convicted for their involvement in their husbands’ murder. Thirty of those women were sentenced to life in prison, one without the possibility of parole.
The remaining two were sentenced to death. Former Gov. Lamar Alexander commuted one and Bredesen said he is commuting the other.
He also said the woman may have been been abused by her husband. That doesn’t justify her actions, Bredesen said, but it should be taken into account.
“This case also raises unresolved allegations of domestic violence and emotional abuse that, while inconclusive, raise the possibility that the defendant suffered from the form of post traumatic stress disorder then known as battered woman syndrome,” the commutation continued.
Owens was convicted in 1986 of being an accessory in the murder-for-hire plot to kill Ron Owen. She is now housed at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.
Bredesen said he hasn’t spoken to Owens, but did inform her attorney, George Barrett.
“This is not going to be decided on who’s for it or who’s against it or political pressure or anything else,” Bredesen told reporters.
This is the Democratic governor’s second commutation. In 2007, he commuted the sentence of Michael Joe Boyd, a man who was convicted for committing first-degree murder during a robbery. In that case, Bredesen said Boyd received “grossly inadequate legal representation” during his post conviction hearing.
Six people have been executed since 2000, according to the Department of Corrections. Eighty eight people are now on Tennessee’s death row.
Owens asked for the commutation on July 30, 2009. Her family began petitioning against her execution this spring.