Bredesen Commutes Death Sentence of Gaile Owens

For the second time as governor, Phil Bredesen has commuted the death sentence of a convicted murderer – this time a woman.

Gaile Owens would have been the first woman executed since record keeping began in Tennessee. She had exhausted her legal appeals and was set to die by lethal injection in September. Governor Bredesen says he made two considerations. For one, it appears she was abused by her husband before she hired someone to kill him in 1985.

“While that in no way excuses arranging for murder, that possibility of abuse and the psychological conditions that can result from that abuse seems me at least a factor effecting the severity of the punishment.”

Also, Owens accepted a plea bargain for life in prison in exchange for her guilty plea. But that deal hinged on the man she hired to do the job also pleading guilty, which he refused to do.

With good behavior, Owens could be eligible for parole in less than two years.

Owens has already served nearly 25 years, and under a life sentence she would have been eligible for parole after 30. Being on death row, she wasn’t able to build up credit for good behavior, so beyond commuting her sentence, Governor Bredesen is giving her a thousand days of so-called “prisoner sentence reduction credits.”

“She has lost the opportunity for a great deal of sentence credits she might have earned, but we’re trying to adjust for that a little bit.”

While allowing five executions to be carried out, this is the second time Bredesen has commuted a death sentence. He says he studied 33 cases of wives hiring someone to kill their husbands. ***One involved a life sentence that was also commuted and reduced by then-governor Lamar Alexander.

Owens’ son, Stephen, thanked the Governor and the more than 11,000 people who signed a petition in support of his mother. In a press conference this afternoon, Stephen Owens said he’s grateful his sons will now have another grandmother.

“I’m looking forward right now to moving forward in our relationship right now and when she, if she does get parole and get it granted, then she will be welcomed with my immediate family here in Nashville and we’ll take those steps as we need to.”

Owens says it was his faith that led him to visit his mother in 2009, almost 25 years after he last saw her. He says God allowed him to forgive his mother and still honor his father.

***A previous version of this story suggested Lamar Alexander had commuted a woman’s death sentence. That’s incorrect. WPLN regrets the error.

Emily Tseng contributed to this report.

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