Battered Woman on Tennessee Death Row at Critical Juncture

Gaile Owens is currently on death row in Tennessee and awaiting a decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court on a request to reduce her sentence to life. Owens’s attorneys have asked the state’s high court to remove the death penalty because her case presents unique circumstances that warrant the rare move. Owens may face execution soon for soliciting the 1985 murder of her husband, Ronald Owens, a man she said repeatedly abused her. Sidney Porterfield, whom she hired to kill her husband, is also currently on death row. Owens accepted an offer from the prosecutor to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but the prosecutor backed out of the agreement when Porterfield would not accept the same plea. Owens and Porterfield were tried and sentenced to death together, after a judge refused to try their cases separately. Owens is the only inmate on death row who agreed to a plea bargain for a life sentence.

No jury ever heard the details of the abuse Owens said she endured with her husband. She said she was sexually and emotionally abused, but never took the stand in her own defense because she wanted to protect her sons from the details. Courts have increasingly recognized a diagnosis of battered women’s syndrome, a mental disorder involving a female who is the victim of consistent, severe domestic violence.

Owens’s attorneys are also seeking a commutation from the governor. Nashville attorney George Barrett said if the governor denies the petition for clemency, “we will be executing a battered woman. That would be a first for Tennessee.” Owens is one of two women currently on Tennessee’s death row, and would be the first woman executed in the state since the 1900s.

(K. Howard, “Gaile Owens’ attorneys ask TN high court to commute death sentence,” The Tennessean, February 6, 2010). For more information, read “ARBITRARINESS: Different Outcomes in Similar Murder Cases in Tennessee,” or visit Friends of Gaile. See also Arbitrariness and Women.