NASHVILLE, Tennessee – A U.S. 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 prison. Gaile Owens, 58, was released Friday and greeted by a small group of supporters outside Tennessee’s Prison for Women. Supporters had claimed Owens 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.
Her death sentence was commuted to life in prison last year, and she won parole last week. Owens was all smiles as she pushed a laundry cart containing her belongings past the razor-wire fence to freedom. The first thing she did was hug one of those sons, Stephen Owens, who is now grown and has children of his own. “I’m looking forward to leading a quiet, private but productive life,” Gaile Owens said in a written statement just before leaving the prison. She said she feels a “responsibility to give back to those who have given so much to me.” Stephen Owens said he was 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,” he said. Tennessee is one of 34 states that have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit. Sidney Porterfield, the man Owens was accused of hiring to kill her husband with a tire iron, was also sentenced to death. He is still on death row. When he commuted Owens’ sentence to life in prison last year, former Gov. Phil Bredesen acknowledged the abuse claims but gave a different reason for his decision to spare her life. He 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 plea bargain. At the time she was imprisoned, a life sentence meant serving 30 years.
She was eligible to be released now because of good conduct. 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.