Bredesen Pulls Gaile Owens Off Death Row

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.

Liberty and Justice News

Tempers Flare Over ‘Smart’ Crime Bill

Partisan acrimony boiled up on the floor of the House of Representatives on Monday when an East Tennessee Republican tried to alter a bill Democrats have been carefully crafting and claiming as a core element of their legislative agenda this session.

The proposed “Smart on Crime” bill, HB2813, would take away the discretion of Tennessee judges to sentence certain first-time perpetrators of “non-violent property offenses,” typically involving damages of less than $1,000, to jail terms. Instead, judges would sentence them to “community corrections, probation, pre-trial diversion or judicial diversion.”

At the same time, the proposed legislation would require that the more serious crime of armed robbery be added to a list of offenses for which the possibility of early release from prison is diminished.

“To make prison space available to ensure that these violent offenders serve a sentence of sufficient length to remove them as a threat to society and to deter others from committing these offenses, it is in the public’s best interest that certain non-violent property offenders currently serving prison sentences for less serious offenses be given alternative sentences not involving incarceration,” according to the bill. “By doing so, the property offenders are able to work in order to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes without threatening public safety thereby permitting longer sentences for those offenders who do threaten public safety.”

But during House debate on the bill Monday night, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, proposed an amendment to remove several offenses — shoplifting, passing forged checks, burglary from a motor vehicle and burning personal property — from the list of 19 crimes for which a judge couldn’t sentence an offender to jail time.

“I like a good part of this legislation, but I also think that if you do any of these four things…you should serve time,” said Hill.

Democratic Party Leader Gary Odom, the chief House sponsor of the legislation, became visibly agitated when responding to Hill and the proposed amendment.

Odom expressed disappointment that Hill hadn’t raised his objections earlier and didn’t “(think) enough to bring the concerns or the proposed amendment to me so I could speak with (Hill) about it.” He also accused Hill of “misrepresenting what the judge can do with these situations.”

“This bill does not give anybody a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Odom. “There is no reduction in sentencing under this bill. The time that someone would be in the custody of the Department of Corrections would remain the same for all these personal property crimes, most of them less than $1,000 in value. What this would do, though, is move them to a different location where they pay their debt to society.”

Odom also said Hill’s amendment would “destroy the legislation” by throwing the fiscal impact estimations of the bill out of whack.

According to the Fiscal Note for HB2813, Tennessee is averaging 1,012 prison admissions a year for the lower-level property offenses defined in the bill. On average over the past 10 years, 669 people have been sentenced each year for aggravated robbery.

In sum, the state would incur additional new costs of about $10 million for the additional incarceration under the terms of the bill.

Odom said the drafters of the bill calculated that moving the small-time property criminals to community corrections and diversion programs would cost the state only five dollars a day instead of $65 a day. By doing that, he added, armed robbers could begin serving roughly six years in jail, up from from the current average of 2.4 years.

“We got up to 74 percent of the minimum sentence (for armed robbers),” said Odom. “All of our other violent crimes in the state, you serve 85 percent. And we couldn’t get all the way, but if you start picking and choosing, you are going to destroy the balance we have in this bill.”

Hill was unmoved.

“Everyone in the state would agree that people that commit the violent crimes that you’re seeking to have serve more of their sentence time — we want them to serve that sentence time,” he said. “That being said, I’m also not interested in a get-out-of-jail-free card. But I also see this as having strong potential to just not going to jail at all.”

Odom made a motion to table Hill’s amendment, but that effort failed on a 47-50 vote, largely along party lines. Only Dennis E. Roach, R-Rutledge and Curry Todd, R-Collierville, left GOP ranks to vote in favor of tabling the amendment. Memphis Democrats John J. DeBerry and Ulysses Jones, Jr. joined with Republicans in opposing Odom’s motion, as did Mark Maddox, D-Dresden. Speaker Kent Williams, the lone “Carter County Republican” in the legislative body, voted against tabling the amendment.

A vote on the actual bill was postponed until later this week.

Andrea Zelinski shot video and contributed reporting for this story.

Press Releases

Sen. Henry Sponsors Tougher Sentencing For Hardened Criminals

Press Release from Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville; March 30, 2010:

Bill Will Increase Jail Time For Armed Robbers, Save State Money

NASHVILLE – Armed robbers will spend a minimum of nearly six years in prison under a bill passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday and sponsored by State Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville).

“Our budget crunch will limit severely our capacity to build new prisons in the coming years. This legislation allows us to use our space wisely while keeping the most dangerous criminals out of our communities,” Henry said

Under the bill (SB3431/HB2813), first-time convicted armed robbers would be forced to serve at least 74 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for release. Current law provides for a minimum of 30 percent.

To create the necessary jail space, about 600 small-time criminals would be moved from jail to community corrections programs, in which they would be required to work and pay restitution to their victims. The move would save the state more than $261,000, according to a legislative fiscal analysis.

“We can put property offenders to work for our community, while keeping violent offenders off the streets,” Henry said.

Metro Nashville Police Chief Ronal Serpas supports the legislation, as do the Chiefs of Police in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis; the state’s District Attorneys and the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.

“As police chiefs, we must carefully consider our obligation to putting public safety first,” Serpas said. “When we, as a state, are forced to make a choice between who occupies a prison bed, the answer is clear: public safety will always favor incarcerating the violent armed criminal over a non-violent property offender.”

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Nashville Rep. Gary Odom, passed in the House Finance Committee today and likely will go to the House floor soon.

Press Releases

Odom’s Crime Bill Clears Fiscal Hurdle

Press Release from Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, March 24, 2010:

Odom bill costs taxpayers nothing, ups sentences for armed robbers

(Nashville) — A bill increasing sentences for armed robbers, sponsored by House Democratic Leader Gary Odom, passed a major hurdle in the state House Wednesday by clearing the Budget subcommittee.

“In the past, the cost has kept us from getting tougher on violent crimes,” said Odom (D-Nashville). “Getting this measure through the Budget subcommittee, where most bills die because of costs, is a clear sign that this bill is on its way to the full House and to the governor’s desk to become law.

“A lot of armed robbers have been serving only a small percentage of their sentences, because of the tight budget. We have found a way to keep these people in jail longer by changing our sentencing priorities.”

Odom plans to move the bill through the House Finance Committee and to a full vote in the next two weeks.

The bill, inspired by a West Nashville constituent held at gunpoint by a criminal who pleaded guilty to earlier armed robbery charges, will more than double the minimum amount of time served for aggravated robbery from 30 to 75 percent.

“A constituent came to me and said a guy pointed a gun at him and robbed him in broad daylight in his yard. This criminal should have still been in jail,’” Odom said.

The bill doesn’t cost taxpayers because it is written to require that non-violent felons serve sentences in very extensive community corrections programs, under which they would pay restitution to their victims.

By requiring these persons to serve in these programs, the measure would free up cells for the most violent criminals in society. These community-correction sentences would include offenses involving limited amounts of fraud and forgery and other non-violent property offenses.

The violent offender in the West Nashville case, under this legislation, would have served six of the eight years sentenced instead of only 2.4 years, Odom said. The bill has been endorsed by the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.


Lawmakers Eye Cuts To Inmate Worker Program

Legislators looking for places to arrest government spending may target a program that modestly compensates prison inmates for performing job-like duties while serving time.

The $4.2 million program pays inmates between 17 cents and 59 cents an hour to perform menial work like kitchen clean-up and custodial jobs, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

“We do think it provides an incentive for inmates to participate fully in programs and their work assignments. It gives them the opportunity to purchase items from the commissary, purchase books, different things and pay some obligations that they have,” Debra Inglis, DOC general counsel,  told lawmakers at the House Consumer and Employee Affairs committee last week.

But “given the financial situation of the state,” lawmakers should reexamine the necessity of the inmate workers program, said Rep. Donna Rowland, R-Murfreesboro.

“I’d really like to look at things we’re spending money on that are not required by us, by law, to do,” said Rowland, secretary of the consumer and employee committee.

Corrections pays out about $350,000 a month to non-maximum security inmates for working several assigned duties during their sentence. Those jobs range from washing laundry and doing yard work to operating as library assistants, recreation specialists and barbers.

The money they make, which is deposited monthly into an inmate’s trust fund, helps pay for items like stamps, copies of legal documents, court costs and outside obligations such as child support.

“That’s a pretty good chunk for people who are really costing our system, isn’t it?” asked Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.

Corrections has been paying inmates for at least the last 40 years, said Dorinda Carter, a department spokeswoman. She said the program combats inmate idleness and assists in rehabilitation by creating a solid work ethic.

“This is the first time some of the inmates have ever worked in their lives so hopefully they will use these skills upon release,” she said.

Between the state’s 14 prisons, 15,482 inmates participate in the program. Corrections currently houses 20,194 total inmates.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Memphis Democrat, said it’s important that the state find ways to motivate inmates to become productive citizens. She said she liked that this program was one of them.

Lawmakers are currently molding next year’s $28.4 budget. The fiscal year begins July 1, and lawmakers hope to decide on a budget by the end of April.

High unemployment numbers, lower-than-expected tax collections and an anticipated drop off of federal stimulus funds are throwing this and the next state budget about $1.5 billion out of whack. Now lawmakers have to figure out how to bring the budget into balance, given the gap between anticipated revenues and state spending.

State revenues are $232 million less than expected this fiscal year. The state still has five months left to go before closing out the budget cycle.

Economic prognosticators expect next year’s revenues to also be lower than normal.

Gov. Phil Bredesen proposed chopping off $394.2 million from next year’s budget, which includes a $6.3 million cut in the Department of Corrections.

Andrea Zelinski can be reached at

Liberty and Justice

Stiffer Penalties for Armed Robbery Proposed

A bill that would strengthen penalties against armed robbers advanced after passage by a state House subcommittee this week.

HB 2813 would increase the minimum jail time of people convicted of armed or aggravated robbery from 30 percent of their sentence to 74 percent of their sentence. Sponsor Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said the bill would inflate an armed robber’s jail time from 2.4 years to 5.92 years.

To pay for the increased cost of incarcerating armed robbers, Odom, who is the House minority leader, proposes releasing from jail a range of “non-violent property offenders,” such as those convicted of forgery, criminal simulation, some vandalism charges and certain thefts.

He added that those released would not go unsupervised. “It would not get anybody a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Odom told the Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee.

Odom further stated that those released “would be moved into community corrections, which would free up some 440 cells that would be available for this most serious offense.”

“When you stick a gun in somebody’s face, you’re in graduate school, as far as crime goes,” he said.

Odom described an instance in which one of his constituents was held up at gunpoint in the middle of the day while the victim’s daughter was less than 50 feet away.

“(The offender) had just gotten out of prison after serving…only the minimum of two years, and then he went on a rampage where, over a three-day period, he committed a number of other armed robberies,” Odom said. “That man should have been in jail, should have been serving a longer period of time than the current law, the current 30 percent, that the law provides for.”

For those who would be released,“offenders are closely monitored, thus freeing up jail cells,” Odom said.

The bill “recognizes that we have a limited number of jail cells, and what this legislation will do is make sure the most violent individuals are occupying that,” he continued.

The companion bill in the state Senate, SB 3431, sponsored by Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, has yet to be acted on in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

Liberty and Justice

Inmate-Reported Sex Abuse High at Nashville Youth Prison

State lawmakers asked Department of Children’s Services officials Monday to explain why a juvenile detention facility was listed in a federal government report as having one of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation.

Last month the U.S. Department of Justice released a study which found that 26 percent of the juveniles housed at the male-only Woodland Hills facility in Nashville claimed to have been sexually abused while at the facility.

Members of the joint Select Committee on Children and Youth questioned DCS officials for well over an hour during a hearing at the Capitol.

“How can this happen?” asked Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, who chairs the committee. “Isn’t there supposed to be another staff member there all the time? Are there security cameras in place? Are there preventative things in place? I just don’t understand how this happened.”

Woodland Hills Superintendent Albert Dawson maintained that the juvenile inmates are supervised at all times. Surveillance cameras have been installed in the last six months, he added.

“(The cameras are) not in the students’ rooms and they’re not in the shower areas, but they are in all of the common areas,” he said.

DCS Deputy Commissioner Steve Hornsby downplayed the report’s findings, saying it does not necessarily mean there are major problems at the facility.

“(The report) is based on allegations — it’s not based on substantiated cases,” he said. “It’s based on allegations as part of an anonymous survey that was conducted.”

“We want to find out what it is (that led to the results of the survey), and we want to get to the bottom of it,” he added. “We have nothing to hide.”

In the past year, there were about 130 investigations for physical abuse, sexual abuse or lack of supervision, according to DCS officials. Of those, eight were “substantiated.”

Not all the legislators on the committee indicated they were satisfied by those numbers or the department’s explanations.

“It just seems curious that there were 130 investigations and there were only eight that appeared to have sufficient evidence,” said state Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville. “That really seems far-fetched, unless they had some kind of game going on.”

In fact, even that number may be “over-reported,” Dawson said.

“If a child gives any hint that there’s anything wrong going on with him, then it’s reported to Child Protective Services, (and) it’s reported to Internal Affairs, to go through the procedure,” he said.

Hornsby promised DCS was taking the report “very seriously,” and that department officials are “looking at what we can do” to address the allegations and the well-being of inmates.

“I take it personally, and you’ve got my assurance we won’t be on there the next time if we can do anything about it. And we are doing things about it,” he said.

Lawmakers on the panel suggested they may move to intervene or further investigate, though.

“Whatever we’re doing is not working,” said Rep. Chad Faulkner, R-Luttrell. “This is something we need to address now and fix. This is something we don’t need to really sit on. This is pretty embarrassing for me, and I know all these other members (of the committee), and (DCS) as well. We need to do whatever it takes to fix it.”

The federal study was mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act that Congress passed in 2003. It requires federal corrections authorities to conduct a yearly “comprehensive statistical review and analysis of the incidents and effects of prison rape.”

Information-gathering for the analysis was conducted between June 2008 and April 2009, and involved 166 state-owned or operated facilities and 29 locally or privately operated facilities.

The facilities examined house about 26,550 youth inmates nationwide. “Overall, 91% of youth in these facilities were male; 9% were female,” the report stated.

“Among the 13 high-rate facilities, most reports of sexual victimization involved non-consensual sexual acts with another youth and serious sexual acts with facility staff excluding touching,” according to the report.