Tennessee prison frees former death row inmate

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Memphis woman who spent 26 years on death row and came within two months of being executed for hiring a stranger to kill her husband was freed Friday from a Tennessee prison.

Gaile Owens, 58, was greeted by a small group of supporters outside Tennessee’s Prison for Women. Owens was all smiles as she pushed a yellow laundry cart containing her belongings past the prison’s razor-wire fence to freedom.

Owens was sentenced to die in 1985, but her death sentence was commuted to life in prison last year and she won parole last week.

Once out, she gave her son, Stephen Owens, a long embrace, as well as a former cellmate who is now free.

Owens issued a statement before leaving. She said she feels a “responsibility to give back to those who have given so much to me.”

“I’m looking forward to leading a quiet, private, but productive life,” Owens said. “But more than anything, I’m looking forward to being a mother and a grandmother. I can’t wait to see my grandchildren, and to fulfill my dream of walking in the park with my family.”

Stephen Owens, who is now grown and his children of his own, said he realized the transition for his mother was not going to be easy.

“This will be a slow process, but we will focus on one day at a time,” said Stephen, adding that’s he’s looking forward to spending the rest of the day with his mother. “The days ahead will be completely new and different for all of us; but as always our confidence and trust are in God.”

Supporters had urged her release, claiming she was a battered wife who didn’t use that defense because she didn’t want her young sons to know about the physical and sexual abuse.

John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and an Owens supporter, said the first time he met her nearly three years ago, he could tell she was sincere and fearful of the future.

“Clearly she was afraid she was going to die,” he said Friday.

Owens’ sentence was commuted to life in prison in July 2010 by former Gov. Phil Bredesen. He acknowledged the abuse claims but gave a different reason for his decision to spare her life. Bredesen said prosecutors had agreed not to seek the death penalty if Owens pleaded guilty but then put her on trial when her co-defendant wouldn’t accept the deal.

Sidney Porterfield, the man she was accused of hiring to kill her husband with a tire iron, was also sentenced to death. He is still on death row.

At the time Owens was imprisoned, a life sentence meant serving 30 years and she was eligible to be released now because of good conduct.

Many of the supporters who greeted Owens when she was released said she had a strong faith while incarcerated and was heavily involved in prison ministry.

Marshall Chapman, a singer/songwriter and supporter, acknowledged Owens committed a terrible crime, but said she believes in redemption.

“And I feel like she’s paid her debt to society,” Chapman said.

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